Aurora, CO

Aurora debates options to prevent youth violence

David Heitz

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City of Aurora

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Aurora, Colo.) The Aurora City Council Monday recognized this week as Youth Violence Prevention Week.

But in previous discussions, some council members avoided putting "Youth Violence" and "prevention" in the same sentence.

"Although Aurora is a safe city, violence among youth continues to affect it: In 2021, 17 of the 45 homicides in Aurora were victims under 25," the proclamation reads.

Aurora's youth violence prevention program provides support and implements critical incident responses to address violent and delinquent incidents.

Bergan, others frown upon prevention programs

Mayor Pro Tem Francoise Bergan criticized city staff at a Feb. 28 City Council study session. She said the city's original youth violence plan focused too heavily on prevention. Several council members said touchy-feely approaches that focus on prevention wouldn't stop gang members.

City officials haven't determined whether gangs pose a significant threat. During a presentation for the first youth violence plan, city staff downplayed gangs' impact on youth violence. Now, the plan lists gangs as the primary driver of youth violence.

How bad is gang violence in Aurora?

According to a survey of youths, parents and community members, the city is experiencing three types of youth violence:

· Gang violence

· Domestic violence

· Gun violence

· Emotional abuse

· Child abuse and neglect

· Psychological abuse

· Bullying

· Sexual violence

· Human trafficking

· Other

According to the city's plan, the top risk factors are:

· Lack of involvement in social activities

· Lack of connectedness to family or adults

· Low levels of commitment to school

· Bullying

· Substance abuse

· Racial tensions

· Running away behaviors

· Mental health

Families, caregivers want help

Christina Amparan, Aurora's youth violence prevention manager, said every family member or caregiver of youth offered services want those services.

But she added, "We have had a couple of cases where we struggled with the youth."

City Councilmember Juan Marcano pressed Amparan last week for data. He noted the plan lists a lack of data as a challenge. "If we're going to intervene, then we need to know how to intervene."

He said members of the gang unit told him gangs are not the primary driver of youth crime. But in the city's new plan, it's marked as the top problem.

Bergan said the original proposal felt like a massive federal program. The council majority nixed that proposal in January and instead reinstated the city's gang program, A-GRIP.

A focus on intervention

In addition to restoring A-GRIP, city staff brought a new youth violence plan to the council last week. Bergan requested the plan include 80 percent intervention strategies and 20 percent prevention methods. Amparan said that's how the plan breaks down, but conservative members still gave it a lukewarm reception. Coffman said the plan didn't meet the council's requirements.

Amparan told the council data collected during community meetings about youth violence drives the plan. More than 650 youths lent their voices to a survey.

Last week, students at two Aurora high schools walked out of class to protest unsafe conditions.

Bergan recommends substance abuse treatment

The council agreed to vote on the plan next week. But Coffman, Angela Lawson and Dustin Zvonek said they wouldn't support it. Councilmembers Danielle Jurinsky and Bergan also expressed concerns about the plan but stopped short of not moving it forward.

"Substance abuse is not on the list, and it needs to be way up there," Bergan said. Amparan explained the plan lists substance abuse as a risk factor for youth violence but not a driver of youth crime.

The youth violence plan includes money for non-profits that serve at-risk children. Jurinsky made it clear she favors Urban Nature Impact, which has applied for the money.

Non-profits scramble for $500,000

Amparan said $500,000 is available for the non-profits, but the city received $3 million in requests. Officials will decide this week which non-profits will receive grants.

Coombs wants to ensure the city's violence interruption techniques don't spur more violence. Amparan told her the city works with specially trained providers to minimize conflict. "There are startups that don't have the training. Capacity building is really key."

Coombs also wanted reassurance that LGBT youths could obtain services sensitive to their needs. Amparan said the city does work with LGBT-specific providers.

Siblings of delinquents monitored

According to Amparan's presentation last week, vernacular matters. Aurora needs to use current and inclusive terms when talking about youth violence, she said. It will take a "multi-layered response to shift the language the city uses to communicate about and with community members when it comes to youth violence on an ongoing basis."

The plan calls for recruiting children and families who might not otherwise participate. The city also needs to watch for "runaway youth most at risk of becoming victimized or engaged in delinquent behavior."

Case managers find reaching out to the siblings of delinquent youths is one of the most effective ways to prevent violence, Amparan said.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

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