Town hall addresses juvenile gun violence

Gainesville Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker held an online town hall meeting on Wednesday about gun violence in the community and some of the ways organizations are addressing it.

Police chiefs from the Gainesville Police Department (GPD), Alachua and High Springs, along with representatives of the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO), Santa Fe College, and the City of Gainesville were on hand for the event.

City of Alachua Police Chief Chad Scott

Duncan-Walker opened up the session by explaining how juvenile gun violence has risen over the years in Gainesville and surrounding communities with the perpetrators and victims getting younger.

Over the summer, a wave of shootings led the state attorney in Gainesville and GPD Chief Tony Jones to hold a press conference. In August, GPD announced the launch of One Community—its approach to addressing the violence.

Conversation at Wednesday’s meeting centered on the need for the community to unite in order to stop gun violence.

“If we are going to address gun violence, or any other type of crime within Gainesville, we must work with the community,” Jones said.

Others echoed the sentiment, saying police departments can’t arrest their way out of the problem.

The speakers highlighted problems that lead to gun violence and also solutions that are in the works.

John Alexander, a commander with GPD’s Youth and Community Relations Bureau, emphasized the home environments of many youth.

As of 2015, Alexander said 77 percent of youth in area code 32641 came from single parent, female headed households―a commonality in youth violence. He also spoke to the impact of the pandemic, saying it exposed socio-economic gaps and gave more time to engage in unlawful activities.

Young people need to have a sense of belonging, he said. But right now, youth are finding it in the wrong places by getting recruited with 20-year-olds and others.

“What we did yesterday will not work for this generation,” Alexander said. “We have not seen this before.”

Alachua Police Chief Chad Scott pointed out a way that today’s youth have evolved. Instead of smashing windows, they simply walk down the street and check for unlocked cars. Many times, firearms left in unlocked cars then end up in the hands of these youth.

One of the firearms used in the American Legion shooting in June came from an unlocked car in Alachua.

High Springs Police Chief J. Antoine Sheppard

“Gun violence does not stop at the Gainesville boundaries,” High Springs Police Chief J. Antoine Sheppard said. “It goes in and festers in other communities.”

Keeping guns from easily getting to local youth forms a part of the community’s role in stopping violence.

“Don’t give an opportunity to arm a teenager with a gun, or anybody else,” Jones said.

The GPD started a campaign to remind residents at 9 p.m. to lock their cars and, preferably, take any guns inside to their safe or lock box.

Wednesday’s meeting also spoke to the importance of community organizations, churches and activities for youth to be a part of.

One caller mentioned the nationwide program Big Brothers and Big Sisters. Jones said the program is coming back to Gainesville.

Duncan-Walker mentioned a program through UF called SPARC 352, which uses the arts to build relationships with the community.

She said programs like these, especially those that involve the arts, are shown to make a considerable impact, and Duncan-Walker added that Gainesville may be at a perfect time to start or expand these programs.

“We are now at a point where we have some opportunities to take advantage of once-in-a-lifetime monies to actually create the type of generational shifts that we need to see for the equity that we say we want,” Duncan-Walker said, referring to federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Buy Back Better program.

The Gainesville commission met on Monday to discuss how it will use the $32 million in ARPA funds it received earlier this year. They also approved more than $4 million for additional projects.

At the meeting, commissioners discussed funding SPARC 352, and Duncan-Walker mentioned that she will hold a special meeting to discuss an arts program to youth violence that ARPA could fund.

“And so, if we’re able, if this commission has the will to funnel additional funds into gun violence prevention, intervention, re-entry, we could do this community a real service,” Duncan-Walker said at Monday’s meeting.

Another piece of the town hall on gun violence was education. Linda Armour, provost at Santa Fe College, spoke about a few programs the institution operates.

One of those, running out of Lofton High School, looks to make a two-generational impact with both parents and children enrolling. The 150 hour program looks to train parents to immediately get a quality job after graduating that doesn’t require parents to juggle multiple jobs.

Armour said the college is expecting 100 percent employment for the graduates. Children receive enrichment activities at the same time.

“So the parents and the children are approaching this as a team,” Armour said.

Another program, Santa Fe Achieve, places Santa Fe advisors in Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) and lets students know about options for training and education after high school.

The program educates students about their options, and once students graduate from the program, they can attend Santa Fe College for free, with the school covering all extra costs after need-based aid.

Armour said the college is also looking to expand its workforce programs and make them convenient.

“Access has got to be convenient,” Armour said. “The most vulnerable members of our community, frankly, need us to be the closest to them.”

Duncan-Walker ended the town hall by saying that more meetings are forthcoming, but the community needs more than meetings.

“This conversation is not over,” she said. “This is the first of several, but after those conversations begins the work.”

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