Violence against juveniles has declined significantly in Baltimore in recent years as juvenile arrests have dropped and student graduations increased — a trend that the city schools chief said stills lags behind perceptions of the city's youths.
"The fact that these things are coming together is … not an illusion," schools CEO Andrés Alonso said at a news conference at City Hall. "It's huge for the city."
Amid the continued decline in gun violence, which helped the city fall below 200 homicides last year for the first time since the 1970s, has been a sustained reduction in violence involving juveniles, officials say.
Forty-two juveniles were shot or killed in 2011, down 67 percent from 2007 when 128 were shot or killed, statistics show. Between 2000 and 2006, an average of 141 juveniles were shot or killed each year.
"While even one child shot is too many, we have taken significant steps toward reducing violence among youth in our city," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said.
Officials attribute the drop to closer working relationships among agencies that interact with city youths, including police, the school system, juvenile services and the health department. Agencies work to identify at-risk youths and try to surround them with services to keep them out of trouble and off the streets.
Alonso said the changes are part of a "seismic shift" that he believes has not been fully appreciated. He noted that there have been national articles about rising violence involving juveniles in other cities; aides to Rawlings-Blake passed out a recent New York Times article showing 200 juveniles had been shot in Oakland, Calif., last year.
"We look at individual incidents, and they tend to be about kids not doing the right thing, and that somehow verifies a conception of what our kids are," Alonso said. "What has been frustrating for me in some ways over the past three years is that I'm seeing an almost seismic shift around what is happening around the youth in the city, and the narrative is trailing that shift."
Population change alone is not enough to explain the declines — the number of city residents under age 18 declined about 17 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and Alonso said the city has seen its student population grow in recent years.
Caseworkers from the Department of Juvenile Services now work out of school buildings; juvenile services, schools police and city police are each represented on a warrant squad that served 1,000 warrants last year. The city diverted 450 youths from the juvenile justice system to community-based programs, and has beefed up a curfew center in the summer to keep kids off the streets.
A program called Operation Safe Kids also determines which youths are most at risk of committing violence or becoming victims of violence, and deploys caseworkers to help them.
"I am in contact with nearly every large city superintendent in this country, and I can tell you there's no place in America right now where this kind of cooperation exists in the way that it does here," Alonso said.
Like their approach with adult offenders, police are arresting fewer juveniles — 3,464 last year, compared with 8,147 in 2007. Adult arrests have plummeted from more than 100,000 in 2005 to fewer than 50,000 last year.
"We're not interested in creating juvenile records for our youth — we're interested in intervening," Rawlings-Blake said.
Similarly, school officials are suspending 34 percent fewer students than four years ago, and there have been 56 percent fewer dropouts. Graduations have increased 12 percent, Alonso said.
"In the past, kids were being pushed out of school and told, 'Don't come back,'" Alonso said. "We changed our discipline code, we shifted our protocols around attendance, and created places for kids to be when they were suspended for misbehaving in major ways. We know that if you sent [teenagers] out into the street, nothing good will come of it."
Alonso said the city's work isn't done: "Those numbers have been cut, and they're still unacceptable. We need to be here two or three years from now and see them cut in half again."