Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Prevention — brother, can you spare an ounce of it?

    Nehemiah Griego was angry. He got angrier, and angrier, and then he got a gun. Or two.

    On Jan. 19, a day when firearms advocates staged "Guns Across America" events, the 15-year-old Albuquerque boy shot dead all five members of his family.

    Horrific, yes. But one thing: It could have been worse. Reportedly the teen contemplated shooting up a nearby Wal-Mart.

    Something happened. Maybe his girlfriend convinced him to confess. Maybe a kind word outside his family's church did it. It has a skate park, and in the hours after the shootings it provided hospitably familiar faces including a friendly security guard who spoke to the teen.

    Whatever the reason, he took authorities to his home, showed them the bodies, then showed them the murder weapons — owned by his parents — including a fully loaded .223-caliber semiautomatic.

     In the weeks since the Sandy Hook horrors, Americans haven't been able to agree about much. Wait. That's not true.

     Some conservatives and gun lovers have turned veritably evangelical about mental health.

     The same people who would look the other way at the dime's being saved when services are cut from mental health services now say, "This is where we should be looking for answers, not blaming guns."

     It's time for progressives, who have always urged more proactive approaches to crime prevention, to take them up on that.

     Let's say that when he was in middle school Nehemiah Griego had been in a program aimed at helping rein in adolescent anger, one that showed good success in helping  at-risk teens, and he was one of those. Would it have been worth it?

      More than we could ever imagine.

      Well, some good people have been imagining this across our land, and getting good results. And people ought to start listening, particularly policy makers who make budget decisions.

      Consider one player in Austin, the Council for At-Risk Youth — CARY. It works to get to angry kids just like Nehemiah Griego. It has a program called ART — Aggression Replacement Training — at five middle schools for disciplinary referrals, most commonly for bullying.

     After a two-semester program that involves service projects, parental involvement and a lot of anger management, it has shown pretty dramatic improvement in students' grades, attendance and discipline.

     A study found that 60 percent of middle-school bullies are destined to have criminal convictions by age 24.

     CARY didn't invent any magic it plies. Others know what works. Intervention does. What CARY does have is support from a city — Austin — and  a county — Travis County — both pitching in $200,000 apiece annually.

     CARY estimates that ART costs $750 per student. It cites a study estimating it costs Texas $125,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile.

     These advocates for at-risk students are calling on the Texas Legislature to set aside 1 percent of the $20 billion the state spends on juvenile and criminal justice and to replicate programs in schools that help young people manage their anger.

     Mental health? CARY has found that 20 percent of these children have emotional disabilities. School accountability? (Nothing seems to stir lawmakers like "school accountability.") These are our most likely dropouts, most likely classroom disruptions — oh, yes, and most likely killers.

     Amid the discussions about gun control and whatever else society might do to avoid more Sandy Hooks, more Auroras, more Nehemiah Griegos, CARY executive director Adrian Moore wrote President Obama urging a new look at intervention programs aimed at juvenile delinquency and anger management.

    "Too much of our direction fixates on capacity-building to 'help strengthen the juvenile justice system,' while not adequately addressing prevention and early intervention programs," he wrote.

      No truer words could be spoken. With all the verbiage sprayed in the air about preventing deeds like those in Newtown, Aurora and Albuquerque, surely we can agree on something like this, and find a few pennies to do it better.

      Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado: Email:

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