Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Easton City Council Committee Discusses Violence Prevention

By Christina Georgiou

While crime in the City of Easton overall was down last year, six homicides combined with national headline news of shootings, especially the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, have local officials hoping to head off future violent incidents before they happen.

The Easton City Council public safety committee meeting Tuesday evening brought together police, local school officials, social agencies and others to discuss ways to make the city a more peaceful and better place for all, starting with resident youth.

Easton Councilman Jeff Warren, who heads the committee, said there are many factors involved in local violent incidents that have occured, including drug abuse, gangs, transplanted social values coming from outside the area, lack of education, mental health issues, to name but a few. He also praised the work the city's local service agencies do as having positive benefits to offset problems that plague some city neighborhoods.

"I think we need to not reevaluate the programs, but some of our strategies for reaching youth," Warren said. "I agree with what the mayor has said--we can't arrest our way out of this problem."

When it comes to school safety, in the wake of the Connecticut shooting deaths, police in Easton, as well as Forks and Palmer townships, are focusing on stopping by the schools more often, at varied times, and patrolling hallways. They're also talking with school staff, especially at the elementary schools, said Easton Area School District security coordinator and school police chief Louis Coxe.

More school safety measures are likely in coming weeks and months too, Coxe said.

"We're considering (more) cameras, entrances and exits, swipe cards," he said. "We don't want to waste any money. (All three local police departments and the school district) are going to put our heads together and do what we think is best to protect our children."

Mayor Sal Panto said he plans to hold a forum on community safety issues sometime in March at EAHS, likely on a Saturday. He added that the discussion is likely to include a wide variety of viewpoints from around the community, in addition to school personnel and law enforcement.

But curbing violent incidents and improving overall public safety in the city is not just about keeping kids safe in school, Warren noted.

"(It's) not only so (students) don't become victims of crimes, but so they don't become perpetrators as well," Warren said.

Easton Weed and Seed Director Laura Accetta, whose agency works with some of the most disadvantaged individuals and families in the city, agreed.

"Problems don't start in the schools. They start at home, and then the schools have to deal with it," she said.

Accetta estimated that of the 4,000 or so inmates at Northampton County Prison, some 2,600 of them take medication for mental illnesses. She added too that a large number of those released on supervised probation are also parents.

Added stresses, such as lack of employment and education, constant financial pressures, lack of food security, and sometimes substance abuse are also factors that lead to difficulties for children that contribute to neighborhood issues.

"This is normal to these children," she said.

Easton Area Community Center Director Anita Mitchell agreed, adding that children that attend the center often don't immediately see alternatives to violence because they haven't been taught otherwise.

"The don't realize that this isn't the world they see on TV," Mitchell said. "It takes so long for talking--to explain we can solve this with words, not our fists."

Panto noted that violence isn't just an urban issue.

"Everyone is having an issue with the culture of violence," he said, noting that recent mass shooting incidents have all happened in more affluent suburbs. "There's a vast amount of violence out there. The kind of violence that happens in the city is different from in the suburbs, but they all have problems."

He added that he thinks the amount of violence on TV and in video games, to some, makes it socially acceptable.

Easton Area Middle School Principal Charlene Symia said that positive reinforcement for children is something she's found to be more effective than negative punishments.

"We have some disconnected children that are facing things no one should face," she said.

The school district is working on "the Medici Group", a parent-suggested program that will help connect those kids with community leaders and other role models so they can share stories and positive messages of encouragement to succeed.

"We're going to work with these children to give them that message of hope," she said. "We teach, we model, and we reinforce positive behavior. We're expanding on it now."

Mitchell agreed a multi-faceted approach is needed to improve the current situation.

"I think it's really important that the agencies and the school districts start working closely together," she said. "Some kids feel they really don't have anybody."

Accetta agreed.

"The teachers have a hard enough time just teaching their classes. We can't expect them to be social workers too," she said. "But if there was someone to send them to..."

Those present seemed to agree that people working through their various agencies working together would provide the best outcome, though nothing was formally decided Tuesday evening. All said the meeting was a precursor to the larger community forum planned for March.

For his part, Panto also said the city plans to buy some houses to sell to working families to help them build equity.

"Many neighborhoods don't have role models," he said. "If we can bring in working families that can be role models...It takes more than parks and sidewalks. It takes houses."

Warren noted that while solutions won't be easily found to problems the community faces, talking about the issues is a good start.

"Even though we're just discussing, from discussions come solutions," he said.

Updated on Thursday, January 24 at 11:31 a.m. to correct the last name of EACC Director Anita Mitchell.

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