Opinion and Forefront

WESTERHAUS-RENFROW: Youth violence is state health issue

March 2, 2013

Westerhaus-RenfroEveryone knows you are not supposed to discuss taboo subjects such as religion and politics in the workplace.

However, there appears yet to be another taboo subject in the Governor’s Office and that is the surge of youth violence. Gov. Pence is not talking about it, and the relative lack of public discourse on youth violence from other top state elected officials is disturbing.

Let’s be clear. Youth violence is not a big-city issue. It is not a local-government issue. It is not a social issue. Youth violence is an Indiana public-health issue.

Homicide is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24 in our state. It is the leading cause of death for African-Americans and the second-leading cause of death for Hispanic youths.

Youth violence is also a national public health issue. An American child has 13 times the likelihood of being murdered by a gun as a child in other developed countries. In 2011, more than 707,000 people ages 10 to 24 had physical-assault injuries treated in U.S. emergency departments—an average of 1,938 each day. Each year, youth homicides and assault-related injuries result in an estimated $16 billion in combined medical and work-loss costs.

Research indicates that violent or aggressive behavior is learned early in life. Risk factors include drug, alcohol or tobacco use, association with delinquent peers, poor grades and poverty in the community. Parents of children at risk are often single, highly stressed, poor and isolated.

However, the shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Columbine, Colo., tragically demonstrate that violence is common in all communities, and children are exposed to it every day. No matter what race, creed, religion or social economic status—crime, abuse and trauma affect 46 million children in America.

Kudos to local leaders, including Mayor Greg Ballard in his attempt to address the problem by launching programs such as the Youth Violence Reduction Team—a joint effort among Indianapolis police, Eskenazi Health Service’s Prescription for Hope program, the Ten Point Coalition and the Peace Learning Center.

In addition, the City-County Council recently held a well-attended community forum and listened to hundreds of concerned citizens.

Now is the time for Pence to take the lead to reduce youth violence. Enacting state laws that keep teens from texting while driving are relevant and save lives. However, violence is the leading cause of injury, disability and premature death for young people. Curbing youth violence should be one of Pence’s top priorities.

Our state must deal with youth violence in the same manner state health officials deal with a disease epidemic. Pence should convene a statewide task force and charge it with finding solutions.

The state Department of Health should immediately work to advance prevention efforts that prioritize public health and community involvement, create and disseminate best practices, and support proactive interventions that prevent youth violence by going beyond mere reliance on the criminal justice system.

In addition, the General Assembly should pass legislation requiring the Department of Education to design or identify youth violence educational materials and evidence-based youth-violence-prevention programs that ensure Indiana schools and community programs have access to model curricula and policies.

By the time you finish reading this column, it is probable that another young Hoosier will have fallen victim to violence. While there is no single quick fix, Indiana can ill-afford to wait and be tolerant as our youth succumb to violence.•

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Westerhaus-Renfrow is a visiting lecturer at the Kelley School of Business at IUPUI, president of Higher Ed Consultants LLC, and a former vice president of diversity and inclusion at the NCAA. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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Recent Articles by Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow / Special to IBJ

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