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D.C.'s Youth Deserve a Less Violent Future

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On March 30th 2010, four young people were killed and several others were injured in a hail of gunfire. That early spring evening, Brishell Jones, William Jones III, Tavon Nelson, and DeVaughn Boyd lost their lives on South Capitol Street S.E. What started as a beef over a missing bracelet resulted in one of the most deadly mass shootings in the history of the District of Columbia.

In the wake of Brishell Jones' death, her mother, Nardyne Jefferies, dedicated herself to working on behalf of District youth. In the days after the shooting, Ms. Jefferies and I made a commitment to one another. We promised to work together to make systemic changes to make the occurrence of tragedies like the one on South Capitol Street S.E. less likely.

Over the past year, with the assistance of the law firm Nixon Peabody LLP, community stakeholders, and members of the advocate community, we developed "The South Capitol Street Tragedy Memorial Act of 2011." The Act creates the most comprehensive and sophisticated youth mental health infrastructure in the nation and will at long last strengthen the District's truancy regulations.

Evidence shows that truancy and unmet mental health needs are two of the most significant contributors to later delinquency and antisocial behavior.  The Act's trailblazing, school-based behavioral health screening system will put the District at the forefront of efforts to thwart youth violence. The comprehensive, youth behavioral health screening system that the Act proposes will connect young people in need of mental health services with the care and early interventions that can prevent negative outcomes later.

Connecting children to behavioral health services gives children the coping and social skills that prevent violent behavior long-term. The Act will provide resources to parents and children, giving them the tools they need to navigate the complex mental health system resulting in better outcomes for children.

The Act mandates a comprehensive epidemiological study of youth mental health challenges in the District. This study will enable us to understand the current landscape of behavioral health in the District's diverse and various communities and tailor programs to match specific populations' needs.  The study will also provide a baseline measure from which to judge programmatic effectiveness.

Truancy prevention, as called for in the Act, can address underlying problems at home and in school. The reforms in the Act will keep young people in school, resulting in more positive outcomes for children and their families and benefit the broader community. Currently, a student who is under court supervision can miss twenty-five days of school without their parole officer being notified. No more. The bill lowers the number of acceptable absences to levels in line with national best practices. It provides for early interventions for students with too many unexcused absences and closes loopholes in the District's truancy policies that allow our students to fall through the cracks.

The problems that we confront are numerous and complex. However, if we are to begin to deal with these types of deep-rooted issues, we must implement bold, comprehensive measures. The "South Capitol Street Tragedy Memorial Act of 2011" is that bold, comprehensive approach to a complex problem.

Brishell Jones, William Jones III, Tavon Nelson, and DeVaughn Boyd deserved better. The perpetrators of that heinous crime deserved better from our school and social service systems. All District residents deserve better than to live in a city where this sort of unspeakable violence is possible.