CEDAR RAPIDS — The summer break phenomenon — an uptick in violence among teens and young adults absent the structure of school — seems to be starting early this year with closures of schools due to the coronavirus pandemic, officials said.
At-risk kids have less contact with teachers, mentors, coaches and others who might keep them on track or intervene before problems boil over.
Many outside school programs intended to support youth and their families at risk of being involved in or impacted by violence are struggling to adapt to the new environment.
School, police, city government and civic officials are looking for solutions.
“I haven’t seen any great models out there right now, anywhere in the country in terms of how communities are going to tackle this issue of at-risk kids this summer, when they can’t go to playgrounds, they can’t go to parks, they can’t get close in terms of programs,” said Dale Todd, a Cedar Rapids City Council member and chairman of the public safety and youth services committee. “We’re all grappling with it right now.”
Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said when social isolation measures first began, police saw a “marked reduction” in calls for service. But those numbers have bounced back. It’s a similar trend in other communities, he and others said.
A melee at Bever Park this month involving 20 to 30 people, many of them young adults, raised flags about ongoing challenges of youth violence, idle time and impacts of social isolation. On Wednesday morning, 16-year-old Judeah Dawson died at the scene on 15th Street NW after police found him suffering from multiple gunshot wounds.
The problems are not new nor are they the result of coronavirus, and many of the main bad actors are known to authorities, Jerman said. But the pandemic has forced authorities to rethink their approach at a time common interventions are constrained.
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At the center of the Bever Park incident were two young women who had an escalating feud on social media during the day that spurred an arrangement for a fight, Jerman said.
Gunfire sent people running, and an 18-year-old woman ended up in the hospital from gunshot wounds.
Four people were charged with violating Gov. Kim Reynolds’ order to avoid gathering in groups larger than 10 people, and one of them also faced a disorderly conduct charge for fighting.
Those have been the only social gathering citations issued in Cedar Rapids, although others could be charged from the Bever Park incident if police can identify them, authorities said.
Todd was among those critical of the additional strain the incident placed on medical resources when they are needed for the coronavirus.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Todd said. “We’re going to use all the tools we can, but it’s a different time. There’s this epidemic of violence that’s going on with them, and now we have this pandemic.”
Washington High School Principal John Cline and Jerman pointed out most serious, recurring issues involve a small portion of the population — perhaps two dozen people in the community.
Cline praised teachers and staff for staying connected with students and families through virtual meetings, phone, email and food distributions. But it’s hard to provide those essential personal connections while also keeping social distance and isolation.
Four factors are concerns, though, including the lack of structure of school, stress of economic uncertainty, social isolation removing human connections and ongoing conflicts between students, he said.
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“Now more than ever during this pandemic, we’ve got to figure out a unique and creative way since we’re not having those regular contacts through school, or other community connections, we’ve got to figure out a way to reach those guys and gals and provide support from whatever organizations they need,” Cline said.
“And then also provide the accountability component as well.”
Rachel Rockwell was hired in 2019 to manage the Creating Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Fund, which was the evolution of a multiyear community task force formed to examine and propose solutions related to youth gun violence. The SET Task force was formed in response to several youth gun incidents and shooting deaths a few years earlier.
Teen gun violence and deaths have continued in Cedar Rapids, not unlike other urban centers.
The SET Fund —$225,000 annually — was designed specifically to help children, their families and neighborhoods through programming for those who are at risk of youth gun violence. The first round of grants was awarded last summer, while much of programming funded by the most recent round has been interrupted, Rockwell said.
She said more established organizations have been more able to adapt and pivot, but newer organizations have had difficulty.
“For some of the organizations that are brand-new and implementing mentoring programs, just meeting youth and making those connections and trying to build relationships with the youth and families, it’s definitely been challenging and harder for them to come up with brilliant ideas of how they can continue those,” she said.
They have been having discussions but still are identifying how best to provide support, she said.
Rockwell said the COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to shift how funding is being used to focus on “the long game,” which is implementing the group violence intervention model.
This model aims to identify and engage “moral voices” within at-risk communities to advocate and intervene from within.
She noted possible summer funding could go to “evidence-based” practices, such as street outreach, crisis intervention and targeting those who are most vulnerable.
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