School involvement is the top priority for a new joint venture between Atlantic City and Pleasantville.
The first official meeting of the two-town Municipal Planning Board talked about plans for the group, which is based on a state model that finds solutions to things such as crime and violence by tracking it — and then attacking it from various angles, joining political, religious and community leaders along with law enforcement.
“The crux of this is prevention,” Atlantic City Police Capt. Bill Mazur said. “I think we have to demand the schools get involved. If you want to stop the gangs, you don’t do it by arresting people. You prevent the kids from getting in the gang.”
In the last six months of 2012, 78 percent of the 27 shooting victims in Atlantic City were 30 years old or younger, according to State Police numbers. Eight of those victims were between the ages of 16 and 20. In the past two years, more than two-thirds of the homicide victims in Atlantic City and Pleasantville have been within that age group.
“It has to be a buying in from all the individual boards of education,” said Forrest Gilmore, who heads the county’s Department of Family and Community Development. “What’s the use of learning reading, writing and mathematics if you’re dead?”
The State Police’s Regional Operations Intelligence Center, or ROIC, has been collecting data on things such as victims, gun recoveries and perpetrators since 2008.
“What we’re mainly interested in are trends and patterns,” Sgt. Jeremy Russ told the group. “We look at it from a 360-degree angle.”
The information includes things such as a victim’s possible relationship to a shooter, where a gun may have first been purchased and criminal histories. Of the 27 people wounded or killed by gunfire in the second half of last year, 86 percent had a criminal history. Of those, 63 percent had previous gun charges.
Maps of Atlantic City and Pleasantville showed where shootings occur and their overlap with where guns are found. All different types of data can be added to the map to see things such as where social services are offered or other things that may help understand what’s going on.
“This is just one example of ways we can see data and have it inform what we are going to do,” said Assistant Attorney General Wanda Moore, who works with municipal planning boards throughout the state.
The data helps determine what an area’s particular needs are, she explained: “It’s based on the local nuances.”
For instance, in Vineland, the board there focuses on domestic violence and foster care as youth transition from the system to adulthood. Trenton’s board is committed to things like youth employment, with a juvenile crime subgroup and also a domestic group. Asbury Park has mentoring and support for youth who need employment but don’t have the system to help them prepare for a job.
Now, Atlantic City and Pleasantville will look at the data to determine where its board will go. But the consensus Thursday was that the schools need to be involved — and heavily.
In Trenton, they moved their municipal planning board meetings from the police department to the schools for that reason, Moore said.
As for the violence, law enforcement looks at not only possible motive, but the circumstances growing up that may have led to that outcome. It all goes back to the youth.
A recent survey released at Wednesday night’s meeting of Stop the Violence of Atlantic County, looks at how people who live in public housing feel about safety and law enforcement, but it’s important to pose those questions to the young people growing up there, said Kaleem Shabazz, president of Atlantic City’s Masjid Muhammad.
Many have grown up hearing gunshots and even seeing people wounded or killed.
“How does being in these areas impact youth?” he asked. “We need to be somewhat outraged that youth are exposed to this.”
There is emerging evidence finding that children who live among violence suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, said Alex Marino, of Richard Stockton College, which is the university sponsor for the Planning Board.
Pleasantville City Council President Judy Ward, who heads Stop the Violence’s Youth Committee, said she has also had trouble getting full involvement from the schools.
Mazur suggested having a student representative at the meetings so they could hear first-hand from the youth. There are boards that do that, Moore said.
“This has to be part of the public education system,” Mazur said. “Of the private education system.”
“The question is, ‘Why do we have to hit such a stumbling block with the schools?’” Moore asked. “That’s been our biggest hurdle all along.”
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