As the country grieves and looks for ways to begin to heal in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, we have a unique opportunity to honor the lives lost with a comprehensive, effective public policy response.
Our sincerest sympathies go to the children, youth and families impacted.
The Administration and Congress must now move quickly, but thoughtfully, to put forward policies and practices that recognize and address the violence experienced every day in communities around the country.
As our national leaders consider their response, they should focus on five principles: Safe Schools; Mental Health; Prevention; Intervention; and Healing.
To increase safety in schools, some have suggested more guns in schools as a response to the incident in Sandy Hook.
But the nation's educational leaders, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have stated emphatically that, "Guns have no place in our schools."
Others have suggested more police presence.
But research has shown that increased police presence has not made schools safer. In fact, it has resulted in the criminalization of young people in the justice system.
University of Delaware Professor Aaron Kupchik, author of "Homeroom Security" says that while armed guards are already in many schools, "their presence has effects that help transform the school from an environment of academia to a site of criminal law enforcement.
Instead of more guns and more police presence, education experts such as Barbara Raymond of The California Endowment point to the importance of counselors, social workers, psychologists and evidence-based programs. One example is the school-wide positive behavior support program to improve learning environments in schools and help children resolve conflict.
The Sandy Hook killings also underscore the need to improve access to quality, community-based behavioral mental health services for children and young people.
An interdisciplinary group of more than 200 violence prevention researchers, practitioners and professional associations recommends that, "these efforts should promote wellness, as well as address mental health needs of all community members while simultaneously responding to potential threats to community safety.
“This initiative should include a large scale public education and awareness campaign, along with newly created channels of communication to help get services to those in need."
Additionally, a comprehensive approach must address the root causes of violence, and focus resources on proven violence prevention and juvenile delinquency prevention programs such as the University of Colorado's Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence's "Blueprints for Violence Prevention" programs.
Easy access to guns that kill 7 young people a day and injure 43 more is a challenge addressed by the bipartisan national coalition of 750 mayors led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City and Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston. The coalition has created comprehensive recommendations to severely reduce the easy access to guns and assault weapons in the U.S.
Finally, there must be a focus on healing.
The U.S. Attorney General's Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence undertook an exhaustive examination over the past year on best practices and approaches to reducing children’s exposure to violence. The task force report included recommendations on reducing exposure of children to violence in the justice system, to counter current approaches that are counterproductive, wasteful and increase risk of re-offending.
The Task Force also made recommendations to ensure that trauma-informed services and care are provided when children are exposed to violence.
To help realize its recommendations, the Task Force highlighted the need for new federal leadership and a new federal initiative on the issue to guide the federal government's work in this area.
Task force co-chair Robert Listenbee, Jr., chief of the Juvenile Unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia summed it up in his statement when the report was released: “We have the power to end the damage to children from violence and abuse."
We know the need. We also know what works.
What’s required now is action.
It is time for Congress and the Administration to step up and provide the leadership and resolve to end violence against children.
Liz Ryan is President and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice and co-chairs the Act 4 Juvenile Justice campaign of the National Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Coalition (NJJDPC). She welcomes comments from readers. Please click here to see a detailed set of legislative, funding and administrative recommendations from the NJJDP Coalition.