Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Tangled Up in Crime: Kids, Schools, and Violence

A weekend feature in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle describing the impact of violence on urban youth and their school performance, and its Tuesday "follow up" (what are the politicians going to do about it?) shows how difficult it is to address contemporary urban problems without navigating the dense web of governing through crime.

The feature by Jill Tucker argued that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) most commonly treated in adults, exists among many young urban residents exposed to violence deaths and injuries of people close to them. The implication was that this untreated PTSD pandemic was a significant factor in the educational difficulties of SF's public schools.

The Tuesday follow up, also by Tucker, covers the response including specific proposals by political leaders to seek a stream of funding from the County government's share of Prop. 63 money. Proposition 63 established a complex new funding line for addressing California's massive community mental health gaps, with the catch that County's have to develop programs that are themselves usually politically controversial to get the money. The follow up also adds an additional wrinkle to the PTSD story. Many kids in the same schools are traumatized by having a loved one disappear into jail.

Ironies abound here. Fear of violent crime is what has most motivated the war on crime from the perspective of the public across the last forty years. The kids described in Tucker's well researched articles are the kids who actually experience the feared reality of a social landscape dotted with the memories of those disappeared to violent crime. But in forty years of crime rates going up and down (they remain lower then in the late 1980s) its the same kids in most of the same neighborhoods who continue to be exposed to the violence.

During the same period, the generalized fear of violent crime promoted by the war on crime and the media helped drive the middle classes out to more and more distant suburbs, exacerbating the social and economic isolation of urban youth, and leading to a high carbon, high obesity life style that many are now stuck in.

In the meantime the harsh war on crime, with its mass incarceration and lengthy prison sentences, have disappeared as many or more of the significant social connections of these same kids.

So how can local government get funds to address problems of urban youth and especially the hard-pressed schools? By focusing on PTSD, the article builds from a well established extension of how we understand crime victims (not just those felled by the bullets but those shattered by the consequences). Tucker's article was able to expose a new class of crime victims. This has significance because crime victims as a category of citizens have become one of the most politically salient symbols ever in American political culture, during and as a consequence of the war on crime.

The ultimate irony being that while we politically pay a lot of attention to crime victims (who unlike the kids here are typically imagined to be white), we do not spend money on them per se (we spend it on locking other people up in the name of those victims). So where to find funds that can be spent once you have political attention? Since PTSD's are recognized mental illnesses they should fit into the legal terms of Prop. 63 spending. Since the programs involved would be school based they do not create the kind of NIMBY problems (not in my backyard) that normally accompanies plans to address untreated mental illness in dense urban areas where high property value neighborhoods are not all that far from any proposed program.

Thus one further irony, some one of the rare sources of spending for mental illness (a social problem that has been neglected for years often in favor of tough on crime spending) finds itself drawn into a collateral dimension of crime and the war on crime.


  1. Here's a connection to PTSD in kids -- everyone around them has a gun! As a blurb in the SF Chronicle points out today, there are 9 guns for every 10 people in America. Only a sick society would expose its children to this level of danger. Here we see the alliance of governing through crime and profiting from crime.

  2. I think that you pose a unique problem in regards to victims. The victims in this case are the urban youth who have been traumatized by the actions of their piers. To make a value laden argument, American society does not spend a lot of money on victims because there exists a cultural norm that victims are better served by not treating their psychological problems. I think many believe that the victim is better served by placing the wrong doer in prison. After the wrongdoer is placed in incarceration, the victim is left to "cope" with the repercussions of the crime on their own. The cultural norm must change.

    I think it is great that in the PTSD article, people are taking notice of the problem. However, until the quality of life in those neighborhoods change public schools are ill equiped to handle such a menacing problem. Kids are running around with firearms either to earn money or protect themselves because getting a job just doesn't pay. In some respects not having a gun may outcast them from their piers.