Violence can affect even those not directly involved, especially young children, experts say
Local schools practice modern conflict-resolution methods to steer away from violence
Community groups agree collaboration from all sectors is needed to improve safety
This story is the third in a three-part series. Ana B. Ibarra’s reporting on community violence and its effects on health was undertaken as a California Health Journalism Fellow at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism.
Violence “absolutely” creates unhealthy communities, experts agree.
While that conclusion isn’t exactly breaking news, treating the specific consequences is difficult and solutions can be elusive.
As Merced County struggles with record-high violent crime, more people are starting to question the impact this upward trend is having on the well-being and progress of local communities.
FROM 2013 TO DATE, THE COUNTY HAS RECORDED 81 HOMICIDES.
Thirty-two homicides took place last year – that’s about 12.51 slayings per 1,000 people compared with the state average of 4.6 per 1,000 people, according to the latest Merced County coroner’s report.
More than half of the homicide victims in 2014 were between the ages of 15 and 29.
So far in 2015, there have been 19 slayings countywide.
Most people recognize that violence can bring about negative health outcomes for victims and perpetrators, according to Sidra Goldman-Mellor, an epidemiologist and UC Merced public health professor.
That toxicity can also trickle down to those who just happen to witness or hear about violence in their neighborhoods, especially children who are most impressionable, she said.
“Maybe there’s nothing terrible happening in their household; they may be a very loving family, but they live in a neighborhood that is just rife with violence,” Goldman-Mellor said, “… hearing about violence from their parents or friends or seeing other people get assaulted … that increases their risk for mental health problems as well.”
Being exposed to violence at a young age also has a direct link with “externalizing behaviors,” such as picking fights and being argumentative. “This connection is actually stronger,” she said.
Most of the research available on violence outcomes has been done in larger, urban areas, and tends to focus on children and teens.
Goldman-Mellor is getting ready to start a new research project in which she will use statewide crime and health data to learn how violence and other socioeconomic factors are contributing to poor health.
“Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing that policy makers don’t always love to address because it has such a long timeline for seeing benefits,” she said.
Health issues brought upon by violence also have huge economic costs, she added, both in terms of direct medical costs and in terms of reduced functioning, like losing the ability to work.
“People with mental health problems have a harder time getting employment, harder time remaining stably employed and it affects their family,” she said. “It can turn into this intergenerational transmission and I think that’s something that’s not paid attention to enough in policy circles.”
The perception students have of their community can affect how they feel about themselves, according to Donna Alley, superintendent at Le Grand Union High School District.
Alley supports restorative justice programs in schools, which teach students ways to resolve conflicts without violence, she said.
In Le Grand High School’s Restorative Justice League, students are trained to offer support to peers who may be facing challenges at home, at school or in the streets.
They are encouraged to solve problems verbally and speak about the issues they feel are important, Alley explained.
“Students hear things, they know when there’s been a drive-by, for example,” she said. “Kids talk, and (through the restorative justice program) we give them a safe space to do so.”
According to a Health Impact Assessment report released late last year, the restorative-justice discipline approach reduced school suspensions by 20 percent to 40 percent in Merced County.
If adopted countywide, researchers estimate 3,400 fewer students would be suspended – this in a county that reported 8,500 suspensions in the 2012-13 school year.
SMALLER COMMUNITIES OFTEN HAVE LIMITED FUNDS TO DEAL WITH THIS SORT OF PROBLEM. BUT IN PLACES LIKE MERCED WITH HIGH RATES OF VIOLENCE, IT’S PROBABLY A GOOD INVESTMENT OF OUR MONEY TO TRY AND COMBAT VIOLENCE AND STOP THE UNHEALTHY EFFECTS IT HAS ON OUR COMMUNITIES.