ST. PETERSBURG — A youth and community forum, “A Call to Action: Making a Change,” brought together a variety of groups to discuss solutions for youth violence and crime, with a focus on engaging Pinellas County middle and high school students and their parents.
The event took place March 14 at the St. Petersburg College Allstate Center and hundreds of middle and high schoolers from more than 20 youth groups were in attendance. Some of the sponsors included Juvenile Welfare Board (JWB), Florida Dept. of Juvenile Justice, St. Pete College and local police departments, among other groups.
Dr. Jim Sewell, chair of JWB, was one of the keynote speakers and noted that he was pleased to see many young people and their parents on hand for the event. If we’re going to bring about change, it has to come from the bottom up, he said.
Sewell referred to recent violent events such as an auto theft that ended in the young culprits crashing into a police vehicle, and the accidental killing of a three-year-old girl who was sitting on her grandmother’s porch when she was caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting.
“I think the scary thing for us anymore is we don’t know when or where those kinds of events will happen,” he said.
The reality is that what we see here in St. Pete is not new to the urban way of life, he said, and the violence that has occurred historically in cities such as Chicago, New York, St. Louis and Jacksonville is not something we want to tolerate in St. Pete.
“It’s here that we must take a stand,” Sewell noted, “for the protection of our citizens and especially for the protection of our children.”
With the size and complexity of our urban environment, it cannot be solely up to the government to see to all our critical issues concerning young people such as their education or their safety. We can’t rely on mayors and city officials as “moms and dads” to take care of us, as it requires a joint effort by the government and community.
As we start to discuss solutions to juvenile crime in our community, it’s important to recognize the steps we’ve already taken, he said, and noted the JWB funds a number of community-based programs aimed at curbing youth violence.
“It is clear we need to do more,” he admitted.
How can our youth best understand that there are consequences for their actions? Felonies and arrests can limit a young person’s opportunity for any second chances, Sewell noted. Establishing juvenile leadership counsels can be effective as it involves the youths themselves, he said.
While the focus that day was on crime and violence, Sewell remarked that there are some other questions we have to ask: How do we break up the cycle that has allowed zip codes to define who you are and what your future holds? How do we best bring in the community in dealing with unemployment? How do we offer a “pipeline” other than prison to those who drop out and see few other alternatives?
Co-keynote speaker, Judge Michael Andrews, Sixth Judicial Circuit Court, began his rousing words by having everyone—especially the young people in the audience—repeat the credo: “I refuse to be an ordinary person!” Ordinary people tend to follow others and give in to pressure while it is the extraordinary people who follow their own paths, he said.
“An ordinary person always wants success,” Andrews explained, “but they’re not willing to work for it…they’re not willing to put in the sacrifice. The extraordinary person recognizes that with great success comes great sacrifice!”
He went on to say that an ordinary person always makes excuses, while an extraordinary person accepts responsibility for his/her actions. And importantly, an extraordinary person realizes you have to be slow to anger because people make a lot of mistakes when they’re angry.
“When they’re angry they end up in trouble and they end up in front of me,” the judge said.
Andrews urged the young people on hand to not be afraid to seek “wise counsel” from those who have years and experience, as it makes little sense for a 14 year old to seek advice from another 14 year old.
“Talk to someone who has been where you’re going!” he said.
He stressed there are no shortcuts to success, and said that no matter what dreams you are pursuing in life, there are always going to be obstacles. People can try to destroy your dreams, he cautioned, adding that drugs can also destroy them.
“Most of what I deal with on a day-to-day basis in my courtroom has some direct or indirect relationship to drug use,” Andrews stated firmly.
People who stand before him in court who have committed burglary, he cited as an example, often have stolen goods in order to pawn them to get money to buy drugs. Even superstar athletes who have millions are not immune to drugs, he pointed out, bringing up former Major Leaguer Darryl Strawberry, who risked his career in baseball by repeatedly succumbing to the temptation of drugs.
Referencing teen pregnancy, he cautioned young people that sex can also destroy dreams, as it can keep them from going to college and wrecking their career path at the outset.
“Imagine trying to be a 17 year old while you’re going to college while you’re trying to take care of your baby at the same time!” he said, adding that all too often the father takes no responsibility, as “boys are not capable of being fathers.”
Addressing the past waves of violence in the area, Rep. Darryl Rouson, Florida House of Representatives/District 70, stated that in response to these tragic events we as a community have gathered and collectively wrung our hands at workshops and meetings.
“We do everything but act,” he said, adding that we need to act on what’s happening in the community in terms of violence.
The recent shootings in St. Pete have made national news, he said, and even prompted him to seek out gang members in south St. Pete and ask them probing questions about their lives. These young men gave him some reasons as to why anyone would seek membership in a gang and consequently embark on a life of violence.
For one thing, it gives them an identity; as for some of these young people, their name or family legacy is simply not enough. For another, they get access to guns, money and drugs. Also, since many of these young people are still only in their teens and already have felonies, they believe that it would be difficult to get jobs, and in the end feel hopeless. Acceptance and membership in a gang gives them hope that they can survive, he said.
“I believe that until we address those core issues,” Rouson stated, “we’ll always have violence.”