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Backed by $3.5M grant, Ala. city seeks to stem youth violence

School and police officials will soon begin conducting and documenting interventions with at-risk students


By Lawrence Specker

MOBILE, Ala. — Public school, police and university officials came together Wednesday in Mobile to launch a five-year youth violence initiative funded by a $3.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Principal partners in the effort are the University of South Alabama, the Mobile County Public School System and the Mobile Police Department. They hope to create “a national model for youth violence prevention” through the SOAR program, a name that stands for Strengthening Opportunities for Achievement and Resilience. Over the next few years, it will be sequentially implemented at four Mobile County middle schools.

Prior to Wednesday’s ceremony, the principals of the four participating schools didn’t know who would be going first. In a random drawing, the four principals, accompanied by police captains from the four partner precincts, chose balloons to find out what order they would go in. Principal Jason Smith of Causey Middle School and Capt. Billie Rowland of Precinct 4 found out they will lead the way.

Program leaders Krista Mehari, an assistant professor of psychology who is SOAR’s principal investigator, and Phillip Smith, a professor of psychology, were careful to say that the program builds on past and current initiatives developed by the police and schools. What will be new this time around, they said, is a methodical approach to developing a framework for intervention and a rigorous evaluation of the data that comes out of such interventions.

“It’s data-based decision making,” said Mehari.

The timeline starts with collection of baseline data in the imminent 2022-23 school year. SOAR will address not only youth violence, but also “suicidality,” meaning suicide as well as attempted suicides or cases where warning signs of suicidal thinking are noticed. Mehari said that cases where students turn to violence and cases where they turn to suicide can share some common risk factors.

In the 2023-24 school year, school and police officials will begin conducting and documenting interventions with at-risk students at Causey under protocols being mapped out by SOAR. The next year the effort will spread to Katherine H. Hankins Middle School and Precinct 2, the year after that to Booker T. Washington Middle School and Precinct 3 and in the 2026-27 academic year to Palmer Pillans Middle School and Precinct 1. It will continue at the first schools as the later ones are added.

While that’s a long timeline, Mehari said that those in charge won’t be waiting until the end to collect results and make adjustments. “We’re collecting data quarterly,” she said. “We think it will probably take about two years of the program being implemented in a community until we’re starting to see the impact of it. Because it’s involving system-level change.”

Those present included a host of police officers and leaders as well as USA President Jo Bonner and other USA faculty and staff, State Rep. Adline Clarke, Mobile County School Superintendent Chresal Threadgill and other school officials.

“We’re hoping this will be an additional tool in our arsenal as we try to help students with their social and emotional needs, their coping skills, building better relationships, and really just making sure that they are well,” said Denise Riemer, lead social worker for the school system.

Knowing there will be an ongoing analysis of the results and follow-up on what works and what doesn’t is promising, said Riemer and others.

“The power behind this is having the university researchers,” she said. “This is what they do. That’s really powerful. And to have those resources associated with the grant, that’s going to be very helpful as well.”

Cmdr. Curtis Graves, with the Mobile Police Department’s Office of Strategic Initiatives, said he was excited by the promise of collaboration.

“The problem for such a long time has been that agencies have worked in silos,” he said. “They’ve created their own programs or strategies to address citywide issues. But our problem is just that. It’s a citywide or countywide issue, it requires more than just a single agency to come up with strategies of mitigation. It requires a collaboration of law enforcement and academia and others.”

“That’s always been my take,” said Graves. “I like to break it down and identify it as a large math problem. Everybody gets a part of the math problem without coming together to try to solve it. They try to solve just their portion of it, not understanding that it’s much larger than the portion that they have.”

Clarke’s engagement in the issue goes back at least a few years to House Bill 288, a bill she introduced in the 2019 legislative session and which became law that year.

“Cmdr. Graves came to me back in 2018 and asked why Alabama didn’t have a mandatory reporting law,” Clarke said. “He had to explain to me even what that was. At the time little did I know, and little did many of my colleagues in the legislature know, that Alabama was one of only a handful of states that did not require hospitals and medical professionals to inform law enforcement when they treated a victim of violence.”

That law doesn’t create a direct channel for schools to be informed if students have been victims of violence. But Clarke said that if police are informed of such a case, and police are working closely with schools, there’s a channel for vital warnings to reach the schools that certain students might be at risk of being victimized again or of being motivated to retaliate. She said she’d like to see the law expanded from gunshot cases to cover other violent injuries such as stab wounds.

She said that she too has high hopes for SOAR.

“It’s very much needed,” she said. “These folks already collaborate — USA and the PD and the school system — but they’re going to be collaborating specifically on doing what they can to curb crime among our youth. And I don’t have to tell you, you can see the number of incidents in the news. It’s too many to count, these days. It’s a sad predicament and anything we can do to try to curb the violence, including programs like this, is going to help.”

From information presented at the launch, it was clear SOAR will be a complex effort. Among other things it will involve interviews with students, school-based training and strategies, law enforcement training and strategies and “integrated community intervention.”

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