January 03, 2013

Social-Service Workers Should Unite to Prevent Another Newtown

As the nation seeks solutions to avoid another senseless tragedy like the Newtown, Conn., shootings, a key player has too often been left out of the conversation: the powerful social-service networks that operate in every community across America.

In particular, communities need to enlist youth-services groups and other nonprofits to use their skills in identifying people who might commit violence and then helping them get counseling and build connections to their communities.

Social-service organizations have a great track record of working with young people to help them avoid destructive behavior. They routinely seek out isolated and disturbed youngsters to help them find ways to keep their destructive feelings from spiraling out of control.

But too few people know about these success stories, so Americans don’t yet realize that the best ways to avoid violent tragedy don’t simply involve new gun regulation or improved school safety.

People who work in schools now know how to lock down classrooms and protect the children in their care when mass shootings occur, but what if all the staff members and volunteers at schools and youth-development programs across America become partners and:

  • Received systematic training on the best ways to see if young people are in trouble.
  • Made active efforts to ensure that all children are connected to their communities in meaningful ways and at every stage of development.
  • Were ready to reach out to parents whenever they saw signs of concern and knew how to offer advice to mothers and fathers on the smartest ways to head off trouble.
  • Offered services in the schools to identify and treat children who are off track emotionally and socially. 

In all of the mass shootings that America has witnessed in recent years, the killers have suffered from their own set of serious issues. We know that most are young, male, detached, and disturbed and have a fascination with firearms and violence. People in their communities are often surprised that the young men committed such heinous acts, but most of the adults who were paying attention can tell you that the killers were loners and seemed disconnected and disturbed. 

That’s why it’s so important for community groups and schools to work together on ways to reach out to the young people who lack serious community ties. Many young people and their parents don’t feel as connected with the schools but are more involved in youth groups that are a big part of many neighborhoods.

Getting youth-development groups to work with schools in new ways may be a tough struggle: They often work in isolation from each other, but it does not have to be that way.

Undertaking new collaboration among schools and youth groups will require money and other resources, especially if we expect strong follow-through by the teachers and youth-development workers who identify the early signs of a troubled youth.

In the wake of the Columbine, Colo., shootings in 1999, my organization was part of a coalition that worked with then-Attorney General Janet Reno and the Department of Justice on the unique role that youth organizations play in helping kids develop in positive ways and, by extension, keeping them from turning to violence. 

That was and is important, but we can now be much more focused because we have learned more about the phenomenon of mass violence. Human-service nonprofits can be sharper in our strategies, and we can and should assert our expertise and perspective.

Our role is to help ensure that people who take care of children know how to build healthy community connections among young people and understand what actions to take when they see signs that all is not well. 

Human-service groups must also advocate for the money and staff to assure that mental-health services, youth-development programs, and other types of help are available so that every child in the United States has the opportunity to be emotionally healthy and connected.

Let all of us who are committed to social-service work be a voice of reason in a debate in which it is easy to jump to incomplete and unfounded conclusions. Now is the moment for us to put our expertise to work to help communities avoid another Newtown.

Irv Katz is chief executive of the National Human Services Assembly, which represents more than 80 nonprofits.