12/28/2012 04:19 pm ET Updated Feb 27, 2013

After Newtown, Arming Parents and Schools Against Violence

It has been a harrowing time for our country after the devastating tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. We saw the worst and best of us as news came in about the senseless violence of the shooter and the heroism of the teachers and administrators who risked and gave their lives to save the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Let us honor these precious lost lives, and so many others, by having a critically important conversation about guns and violence in our communities, our nation's inadequate mental health system and our responsibility to protect the most vulnerable and precious among us -- our children. And this time, we must move from conversation to action.

Just as the names of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary are emblazoned on our hearts and minds, so too are the names of young people who die every day on street corners in neighborhoods across the country. In New York City, gun violence has decreased in general over the last several years, but far too many children and youth continue to die as the result of gun violence. Like many who work with children and families in high-poverty communities across the country, my colleagues at The Children's Aid Society have too much experience seeing young people with incredible promise killed by guns. In the last five years alone, 10 young people in our care were murdered and many more have had a friend or family member killed by guns.

Now more than ever, it is clear that we need to re-institute stricter controls on the availability of guns. Policymakers can and will debate the details of those controls. But as Newark Mayor Cory Booker recently wrote in his reasoned, pragmatic call to action, "many reforms have significant support from the public, and even from gun owners ... The only reason these wouldn't happen is because of backroom dealing and lobby opposition, and we simply cannot allow that given what is at stake." The bloodshed in Connecticut is a wake-up call to Congress to take action on common sense measures.

Such measures could have prevented one young man from dying needlessly. Shytik Bowman grew up in a community where guns and violence are commonplace. Shytik got into trouble as a young teen, and when he brought a gun into his high school, he received a 10-month sentence at a juvenile facility. Upon his release, Shytik participated in LINC, a program we run to help juveniles returning from detention facilities re-enter society. At LINC, he established a transformational relationship with an adult life coach whose job it is to help guide young people like Shytik along a more constructive path. Despite continuing to be surrounded by negative influences, including exposure to regular gun violence, Shytik became an active participant in the LINC program, participating in weekly support group sessions and attending job training classes. He was turning his life around.

Shytik was fatally shot last summer by someone who was trying to rob him, leaving behind devastated family and friends and breaking the hearts of those who worked with Shytik and loved him.

Young people like Shytik in the high-poverty neighborhoods we serve die senselessly as a result of gun violence every day. I am not naïve enough to think that restricting access to guns is a panacea for this American crisis. Without access to excellent schools, high-quality health care and jobs that pay a living wage, young people growing up in poverty, their families and their communities will continue to face traumatic violence. But it is also true that sensible gun control can limit access to deadly weapons of mass destruction. Gun control will not end violence in our communities, but it is a sensible strategy to reduce it.

The tragedy in Newtown has also reignited a conversation about the need for better access to mental health services both in school and community settings, and here too we need to move from talk to action. One in 10 youth has a serious mental health problem that impairs how he functions at school, home and community. But 75 percent to 80 percent of children in need of mental health services do not receive them. While in the past 10 to 15 years there have been great developments in the understanding and treatment of mental health issues in children, the communities that need these supports the most have not benefited from them.

We need to move forward on two fronts simultaneously. One, we need to change the conditions of children growing up in poverty so that their exposure to trauma-inducing situations diminishes greatly -- what could have prevented Shytik and so many others like him from getting involved in self-destructive behavior in the first place. This is why we must focus on long-term strategies to create real opportunities for children growing up in poverty. When children and families get support early to create nurturing environments at home, and when their schools provide them with a real path to the future, we see time and again that young people can overcome difficult circumstances and thrive as adults.

Two, if children do experience trauma, we must jump into action -- just as the country is rightfully doing for the Newtown community. If we don't, we know the devastating implications. Children and youth who have experienced trauma have lower educational achievement and have greater involvement with the criminal justice system than other children. And it is worse for poor children who have less access to mental health services and often receive a poorer quality of mental health care. So instead of putting an armed guard in every school in America, let's ensure that there are enough social workers and guidance counselors in schools to help keep young people on the right path. Let's make sure that the children -- like Shytik -- who need a coach get one.

It is our collective responsibility to ensure that all children have every opportunity to live free from violence. Offering the hope of a better future by providing families with a path out of poverty is critical. Providing access to mental health supports in schools and communities is essential. And so is common sense gun control.