ARLINGTON, Va. — U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch served up some sobering statistics today at a national summit on preventing youth violence: More than three of five American children have been exposed to crime, violence or abuse.
“This violence can take many forms and can occur virtually anywhere — from the streets of our neighborhoods to the far reaches of cyberspace; from the schools where our children learn their earliest lessons, to the homes where they should feel most secure,” Lynch said at the fourth National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention.
“And it is clear that, regardless of how or when it occurs, exposure to violence can have real and devastating consequences for growth and development.”
Lynch, who took office April 27, noted research has shown that whether children observe or are victims of violence or abuse, it will make them more likely to fall behind in school, to suffer anxiety and depression, to struggle with drug or alcohol abuse — “and, ultimately, more likely to perpetuate the cycle of violence in what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called a ‘descending spiral of destruction.’”
In her first major speech on juvenile justice and youth violence, Lynch said efforts to prevent youth violence must be intensified and continue “until a child’s ZIP code does not dictate that child’s future.”
Lynch, who had served two stints as a federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of New York before being nominated attorney general by President Barack Obama, said: “As we’ve seen from recent events, preventing violence in our communities is not an abstract concept, but a clear and pressing need.
“It is a need that requires more than a prosecution strategy — but rather an approach that sees all sides of this challenging issue. Healing our neighborhoods, building mutual trust and promoting well-being are not lofty or unreachable goals; they are tangible pieces of the more prosperous and more peaceful society that we all seek.”
The summit, launched by the Obama administration in 2010, is a gathering for those participating in the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention to share ideas and develop strategies. Participants included representatives of the 16 cities in the forum as well as youth leaders and officials from federal and state agencies, law enforcement and school systems, along with private partners that support local efforts. More than 350 people from 40 localities were scheduled to attend, Justice Department spokeswoman Starr Stepp said.
The three-day summit, which began Monday, covered a wide range of topics.
Among them: developing and measuring the success of violence prevention efforts; leveraging funding for anti-violence initiatives; working to reduce crime in neighborhoods; examining the convergence of child welfare, social services and juvenile justice; harnessing youth ideas on curbing violence; partnering with faith-based organizations; starting state and community partnerships; engaging boys and young men of color; reducing the “school-to-prison pipeline” and “zero-tolerance” policies in schools; providing education to incarcerated youths and helping them prepare to re-enter society; and turning to federal prosecutors for help combating violence through enforcement, outreach and prevention.
Lynch recalled traveling last week to Baltimore, which had been beset by rioting, arson and looting after the funeral of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died after suffering severe injuries in a city police van.
She met with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, police officers and people who took to the streets after the unrest to clean up trash and debris.
“But,” Lynch said, “I think I was most impressed with the young people I met with in Baltimore — about nine of them who are working within their community and with their peers to make their city a better place for everyone. A few seemed to have read more about civil rights law than many lawyers I know. And they were optimistic — even in the midst of great challenge — about the future of their city.
“They are a testament to the strength of our young people — even those who live in tough neighborhoods and face real economic challenges. They are making a real and positive difference and serving as an example to others. And I told them that I hoped they would challenge their peers to do the same, because in many communities in Baltimore and in communities across America, it is all too easy for our youth to get caught up in drugs, gangs and violence and give in to a troubling status quo.”
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who had served as CEO of Chicago Public Schools from 2001 to 2009 before joining the Obama administration, recalled the horror of the violence in that city and said the hardest part of his job was going to funerals of students who were shot and trying to comfort victims’ families and fellow students.
During his tenure, Duncan said at the summit, “On average, we lost one child every two weeks to gun violence … and the vast majority of these students were not gang-bangers.”
There was the young girl shot by someone with an AK-47 from 100 yards away as she sat in her living room at 7:30 a.m. and the boy shot in a bus at 2:30 p.m. as he headed home from school. Duncan said the gun violence in Chicago has declined in recent years.
“But whether it’s my hometown or it’s anywhere across the nation, what we’re seeing is just absolutely staggering,” he said. “And the loss of human potential and the loss of leaders, as a nation, we can’t afford to let that happen.
“We are thrilled that high school graduation rates are at an all-time high. We are thrilled that dropout rates have gone down, but as a nation, we are nowhere near where we need to be” in reducing youth violence, Duncan said.
He still has a picture of a fireman a Chicago school student drew him. “The caption is, ‘If I grow up, I want to be a fireman,’” Duncan said.
That mindset remains far too common.
“It’s a really, really deep thing. To too many kids around the nation, that’s their thought — ‘if I grow up.’”