Kevin Beckner unveils a community plan to prevent violence in Hillsborough County

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On December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was the deadliest mass shooting at a high school or grade school in U.S. history, and the second-deadliest mass shooting by a single person in U.S. history, eclipsed only by the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.

In the days and weeks that followed, there were calls for some form of gun control across the U.S. In Tampa, Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner had two suggestions the next time the Board of County Commissioners convened in January. One was to authorize a gun buy-back program with the Sheriff's Dept. The Board rejected that idea, but accepted his second proposal: to create a long-term plan aimed at preventing violence in Hillsborough County.

"Like everyone else, I felt sickened, angry and frustrated," Becker said today about his initial reaction to Newtown. "For weeks, the media and the county continued to focus on the events and how to prevent mass shootings. That was natural ... but I also realized the focus on mass shootings was displaced."

Beckner's plan was to adopt a program to try to reduce if not eliminate the violence felt in Hillsborough County, which led to the creation of a group called the Violence Prevention Collaborative (VPC) to study the issue. A the Hillsborough County Courthouse on Monday morning, Beckner led a news conference announcing the unveiling of that group's strategic plan, called Safe & Sound Hillsborough. Also participating were members of the VPC, which consists of representatives from Tampa, Plant City, Temple Terrace, Hillsborough County Public Schools, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, the Tampa Police Dept., the State Attorney's Office, the Public Defenders Office, the 13th Judicial Circuit Court, and 77 community members who served on seven specialized committees. 

When Beckner announced his plan back in early 2013, there was some skepticism that was expressed, with some commissioners saying that in fact violent crime has been going down in Hillsborough County (as it has in most of the country) for years. True,  Beckner admits, but he cited 2012 statistics today showing that there were 4,570 violent crimes in the county for that year, as well as over 7,000 domestic violence incidents and over 10,000 reports of child abuse to prove that a plan to reduce and/or prevent violence is still needed.

The report lists a 100-day action plan, with the first step being the hiring of a coordinator and "some" employees to monitor the progress. "Our plan is based on the understanding that violence can be prevented when all of a community can come together to pursue data-driven, evidence-based strategies that address violence as a public health issue," Beckner said.

"We believe prevention efforts need to be grounded in good data ... and based on evidence," said Dr. Martha Coulter of USF's College of Public Health.

In order to get a sense of problem, the VPC sent out  3,500 surveys to kids aged 14-19 through 27 different schools in the Hillsborough County School District, as well students in classes in adult education, court diversion and detention programs, and received nearly 2,000 back. Dr. Coulter announced a number of findings from those surveys, but said the there were two positive parts of it that stood out with her: One showed that 98 percent of those surveyed had a very positive sense of belonging at their school, and that and that children don't think that the people in their community feel they have an opportunity to meet and come together to solve major problems.

Because of those high marks given by Hillsborough County teens about the safety they feel in schools, the school district is sure to play a major part in implementing some of the proposals. "We in the school district have an enormous responsibility to be proactive and make a difference," said school board member Cindy Stuart.

The plan also includes maps of the county showing hot spots for domestic violence, gang activity, child abuse, truancy and other risk factors.

It's a five-year plan. Beckner says an immediate step is to go before his colleagues at the Board of County Commissioners on September 4. That's when they'll be asked to support a funding request of $1.7 million to keep the program going.

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