USF Public Health plays pivotal role in Hillsborough County’s plan to prevent violence

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Preliminary analysis of a Hillsborough County youth survey identifies a range of risk factors for violence, but also indicates that schools may be well positioned to help implement programs and strategies to prevent child abuse, substance abuse, crime and other types of violence.

Martha Coulter, DrPH, professor and director of the Harrell Center at the USF College of Public Health, reported the survey’s preliminary results Aug. 25 at a press conference announcing a groundbreaking long-term plan to prevent violence in Hillsborough County.

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Martha Coulter, DrPH, director of the Harrell Center at the USF College of Public Health, reports on preliminary findings from the Violence Prevention Collaborative’s youth outreach survey.

The strategic plan will be driven in large part by the complete data analysis performed by Harrell Center researchers – the first step in a five-year pilot project by the county’s Violence Prevention Collaborative.

The collaborative, chaired by Hillsborough County commissioner Kevin Beckner, was launched in the aftermath of the elementary school mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. in 2012. It includes representatives from law enforcement, city and county governments, the 13th Judicial Circuit Court, the Hillsborough County School Board, the State Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office and USF.

While the county’s violent crime rate has fallen, violence remains a problem that continues to plague our communities and must be addressed at its root causes, Beckner said.

“We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” he said. “Our plan is based on the understanding that violence can be prevented when all parts of a community come together to pursue data-drive, evidence-based strategies that address violence as a public health issue.”

To help lay the groundwork for the prevention plan, the collaborative conducted an outreach survey of more than 3,500 youngsters, ages 14 to 19, to assess their perspectives on violence as well as risk factors that threaten well-being and resilience factors that may protect and support individuals.   More than 2,000 surveys were returned from participants in the county’s schools, court diversion and detention programs, and adult education programs. Approximately 58 percent of the respondents were female, and roughly 41 percent reported that they were of Hispanic or Latino decent.

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Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner (second from right), chair of the Violence Prevention Collaborative, was joined by a diverse group of community leaders, including USF Health’s Dr. Coulter, at a press conference announcing the long-term plan to prevent violence across the county.

While much more analysis of the data will be done by the Harrell Center over the next several months, some emerging trends reported by Dr. Coulter include:

–          Many youth surveyed reported challenges in their communities related to sense of belonging and social cohesion.

–          More than a third of survey participants indicated that they do not feel that adults in their neighborhood can be counted on to ensure that children are safe and stay out of trouble.

–          About the same number do not feel that people in their neighborhoods have the opportunities they need to meet and work together to solve community problems.

–          Twenty-eight percent felt that gunshots and shootings were a problem in their communities, and many youth reported living in neighborhoods where drug sales, graffiti, deserted homes and storefronts, and trash in public areas were problems. A majority said they would spend more time outside if their neighborhoods were safer.

–          More than half of the respondents reported using alcohol or drugs more than 40 times in their lives.

Among the early positive findings:

–          Most respondents said they had a parent or adult they could talk to about their problems and who took an interest in their school work.

–          Ninety-eight percent of children reported feeling a sense of belonging at their school, and the majority mostly or always feel safe in their school building.

“This is what we call a protective factor,” Dr. Coulter said. “It positions the schools to be a central part of implementing prevention programs, and suggests that programs that build on or are based in the schools are likely to be trusted by our children.”

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Carla Vandeweerd, PhD, associate director of The Harrell Center (left) and Dr. Coulter stand in front of one of several color-coded maps showing zip code areas in Hillsborough County most impacted by poverty, truancy, child abuse, domestic abuse and other indicators of violence.

Moving forward, the collaborative will hire a coordinator and seek county approval for $1.7 million in funding. The ambitious project seeks to unite and build upon the strength of collective community resources to tackle the causes of violence on multiple fronts. The group’s report recommends strategies to support the health and well-being of families, foster quality education and social connections, and improve conditions in neighborhoods most impacted by violence.

“We believe that prevention efforts need to be grounded in good data and based on evidence, and this collaborative has based its work precisely on that philosophy,” Dr. Coulter said “We are excited to be part of this project to help make our community a safer place.”

Dr. Coulter co-chairs the Violence Prevention Collaborative education committee and is a member of the group’s steering committee.  Carla Vandeweerd, PhD, assistant professor of community and family health and associate director of the Harrell Center, is analyzing the youth outreach survey data.

Reposted from USF Health News

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