The social media content is difficult to watch – containing the glitz and glamour of a music video transposed against the weaponry and bravado that have made Jacksonville streets so dangerous.
It begins with a darkened image of an automatic rifle lying on the ground in front of a shining, new-model black car. The camera pans artfully up the frame of a young man resting against the car, another rifle slung over his shoulder. Soon it cuts to sepia-toned shots of young men swaying to music, holding rifles and handguns in the air.
Then the rap music begins: “Man it’s official when we creep. Man my niggas don’t drive by, we chase ya on yo feet. Runnin’ yo ass down till yo ass be deceased. 7.62 may yo soul rest in peace, rest in peace nigga.”
It refers to the size of the bullet used ostensibly to bring someone down. To kill them.
Such content appears daily on social media platforms across Jacksonville, produced by the gangs that create violent havoc in neighborhoods. This content is used to incite anger, challenge other gangs, humiliate rivals, sell drugs and guns, and recruit new members.
“The youth turn to social media for everything,” says 31-year-old Deion, who grew up on downtown streets. His father stepped out of Deion’s life when he was young. His mother was in and out of prison for drug dealing. Early on Deion found another family in a Jacksonville gang.
He’s been arrested numerous times and imprisoned for years. He was labeled by law enforcement as a gang member. Now he is out of prison and in a positive relationship. He’s seeking ways to help others avoid the path that he took.
When Deion was young, the gangs recruited new members via MySpace. Today, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube and others all serve as platforms for these kinds of messages.
“This is the way gangs recruit new members … by showing them what they’re doing. There’s all types of drinking. All types of money. Fast cars. Guns. They say, ‘If you want to join with us, you can have this too.’”
Although Deion was personally recruited on the streets of New Town, over the years he saw how important social media was becoming in the deadly world of Jacksonville’s gang families.
“They’re basically using it as a marketing tool for their enterprises,” he says today. “Sometimes they even advertise little ‘pop-up’ parties to sell drugs.”
Deion says the messages are often driven by rap, created by gang members themselves, that glorifies the group’s prowess. But this music is not innocent.
“It’s retaliation. People are getting killed over rap songs,” Deion says. “Youth hook up to these songs. The kids go out and listen to it.”
The problem is, Deion says, young people in the neighborhoods don’t know how to correctly assess and understand the messages that are being sent out.
“They don’t know how to process it the right way. They need to understand the social media they see.”
The outsize reach that violence in Jacksonville has on the larger community’s well-being demands comprehensive attention and multiple strategies, including ensuring prevention options are available to those who would most benefit. At the same time, the community must actively engage in efforts to increase community cohesion and understanding.
Although there are numerous Jacksonville programs targeted for teens and some for young adults (both of which are populations most at-risk of violence involvement and victimization) these programs may not have the bandwidth to ensure a larger portion of this key population is fully supported through this time in their development. Most often they are run by nonprofits or government-funded entities and while the services they provide are crucial, they simply are unable to reach the majority of young people within the age group.
No one entity or individual can be solely responsible for crime and violence reduction in Jacksonville. Moreover, the broader community involvement of individuals, groups, and institutions will only benefit efforts. Schools in particular, which already serve an unparalleled role in providing connection and support to Jacksonville youth, have tremendous capacity to reach more youth in additionally supportive ways. They are the most ubiquitous influence in the lives of school-age children. They are also the most ubiquitous influence in the recent but past lives of young adults.
Duval County Public Schools administrators have been proactive in incorporating numerous programs and services aimed at prevention and intervention into the schools’ curriculum. In addition, the schools in Jacksonville and the city itself have been innovative in providing after-school care and tutoring for students. The district and city should be commended for all they have done.
But as the schools and their teachers are often burdened – if not overburdened – with the need to continually update and develop new components for inclusion in the curriculum, we believe it’s not unreasonable to suggest the creation of additional outside partnerships to aid the schools in their mission. Nonprofits seem the perfect allies to help.
Indeed, many nonprofits are already involved in such efforts. They have created after-school programs, provided mentors, provided services, and created unique adjuncts to the educational mission in Duval County. We are grateful to these organizations for stepping forward.
We propose the following recommendations, leveraging the central prominence of the county’s schools, to ensure more youth have access to the tools they need to safely and successfully navigate the challenges they face growing up in Jacksonville.
Additional After-School Programming
The provision of after-school programs (ASPs) is a crucial component in making Jacksonville a safer environment. Keeping children engaged in productive activities during those after-school hours before parents return home ensures they have safe and healthy activities to not only occupy their time, but also to support their developmental and educational needs toward better individual, family, and societal outcomes. “Goals of after-school programs range from providing supervision and reliable and safe childcare for youth during the after-school hours to alleviating many of society’s ills, including crime, the academic achievement gap, substance use, and other behavioral problems and academic shortcomings, particularly for racial/ethnic minority groups and low income students.”1 In fact, research shows that the hours filled by ASPs on weekdays are the exact times children are most likely to engage in crime and, alternatively, become the victims of crimes. Those hours after school ends are also the hours when children are most likely to experiment with sex, alcohol, and drugs.
That’s why our First Recommendation concerns the provision of additional high-quality after-school programming to support youth whose needs are currently unmet. Not only would an expansion of ASPs make the streets of Jacksonville safer, it would support the social, emotional and academic development of the children involved. Indeed, research finds that when ASPs are designed to enhance children’s social and academic skills and abilities young participants show significant increases in positive social behaviors, including academic achievement, and significant decreases in antisocial behaviors, including crime.2
Although many of the ASPs across the country are directed at elementary- and middle-school-aged children, there’s growing recognition nationally that high-quality after-school programming for high school students is critical for helping them develop into successful adults. Such ASPs for older adolescents can also improve public safety.3
For example, one nationally recognized program specifically targeting at-risk boys grades 7 through 12, Becoming a Man or BAM, has been the focus of ongoing research into program effectiveness. That research found a 28 to 35 percent reduction in total arrests, a 45 to 50 percent decline in violent-crime arrests, and a 21 percent decline in recidivism for participants.4
The key to achieving these prosocial effects does not lie, however, in the simple provision of ASPs. It is found in the quality of the programming provided. In fact, all too many of today’s ASPs consist of little more than passive childcare. Supervision of children is certainly necessary during the after-school hours before parents return home, but it is crucial to extend the benefit of those hours by providing high-quality activities to promote a child’s social, emotional, and academic development.
Researchers Little, Wimer and Weiss5 noted that while many ASPs have a potential for positive effects, most did not maximize that potential. They noted that three conditions were most necessary for programming to be successful.
- Children must be able to easily access and maintain sustained participation in the program
- Both high-quality programming and staffing must be provided
- There must be strong partnerships between the ASP and the places where children are learning (their schools, their homes, other community institutions)
So, what’s happening in Jacksonville?
Here, most of the city’s ASPs are funded through the Kids Hope Alliance, which receives a total of $50 million from the city each year to give directly to providers, of which $18 million goes to after-school programming and summer camps. The Alliance is not a service provider itself but doles the funding out to numerous nonprofits that provide a variety of programming ranging from after-school care housed within the city’s Community Centers to the several high-quality nonprofit-run centers housed within area high schools. In addition, it provides funding to stand-alone programs such as Don’t Miss a Beat and Jacksonville Arts and Music School.
While the Kids Hope Alliance maintains a listing of the ASPs funded, there has been little done to date to look at the quality of the programming. Michael Weinstein, who assumed the directorship of the Alliance in 2017, told JustJax that he inherited an agency that was charged with funding primarily early learning, juvenile justice, out-of-school programming, and both pre-teen and teen programming. Up until his arrival, that agency, however, had done little in terms of gathering the data needed to assess the effectiveness of the programs. There’s also very little wiggle room in how the bulk of funding allocations that the KHA receives from the City budget are spent, which limits opportunities for innovation.
The result, for the time being, has been that the funding that is allocated to each ASP is based not upon the quality of the services provided but on a simpler figure – the number of children served. “Right now, it’s quantity over quality.” Weinstein shared. What that means is that there is little to no accountability for programs to ensure programs meet and exceed acceptable community standards.
Commendably, under Weinstein’s leadership, the Kids Hope Alliance has adopted and is in the process of implementing a series of measures that will hold programs accountable for their effectiveness. These efforts will go a long way in ensuring these investments are meaningful to both the community and the kids they serve, with outcomes in the public interest. Further, Weinstein is hopeful that the KHA will be able to build evaluation into program metrics, in partnership with researchers. But, to date, no accountability means that ineffective programs can’t be pinpointed or terminated and measurably successful programs cannot be leveraged.
Most of the programs funded by the Alliance are directly targeted at elementary- and middle-schoolers. Weinstein said those ages are the preferred focus for Alliance money. In fact, in these grades, about 12 percent of the district’s 93,264 elementary and middle school students are enrolled in ASPs.
The percentages aren’t as high for high school students.
Currently Alliance after-school programming goes to 12 nonprofits that mount after-school programming for high schoolers. Prior to Covid-19, some 3,200 students in grades nine through 12 were enrolled. But with 38,314 Duval County students in high schools, that means only 8 percent of high school students are involved. And, given the Alliance’s hesitancy to target funding, the programs don’t necessarily focus on teens exhibiting the most need.
“That’s been one of our talking points as far as the program – that it needs to be directed at that group,” said John Everett, director of the Alliance’s Pre-Teen and Teen programming. “What tends to happen is once kids get into high school there’s a misconception that they’re almost done and they don’t need that support. That’s just not true.”
No matter what grades are being examined, Duval County’s provision of ASPs is not satisfactory.
According to Kenneth Darity, the director of Out of School Time at the Kids Hope Alliance. “What we’re funding now is really a drop in the bucket as far as what we need in after-school,” he said. “There’s tons more room for growth. There are many communities in which we don’t have any after-school programs at all.”
So what can be done to correct the gaps in Jacksonville’s ASPs?
First, there must be a careful assessment done of the programming provided at these publicly funded programs. Who are the staff members providing the services? What services are provided? Are the staff members qualified to provide social, emotional, and academic programming? What hours are the services being provided (we note that some ASPs close at 5 p.m. so parents unable to pick up their children by that time may be faced with unsupervised children)? Are the ASP needs within the most violence-affected neighborhoods met?
Within each of these settings, what is the attendance rate of the children? We know that this factor significantly impacts the effectiveness of programming. If children are not attending regularly, why is that happening? Is it a result of unqualified staffing and services or some other factors? As far as ASPs go, the greater the participation, the greater the gain.
Finally, what is the relationship between these ASPs and the institutions where the children traditionally conduct their learning (the schools, the home, and other institutions). Do the ASPs have meetings with parents, school groups and others to assess how well they’re meeting the students’ needs? At the very least, are there communications in the form of online or print messages that are shared between these learning places and the ASPs? If not, how can that be better facilitated?
Questions need to also be addressed regarding the lack of programming for high school students, an age at which these types of services are still crucial, but not yet maximized. There are certainly admirable programs in the community that address some of the needs, including the three in-school centers. There are also athletic programs such as the Police Athletic League and the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation. There are other programs such as The Performers Academy,6 with a mission to make performing arts accessible across the community, but sadly, when the Alliance was born, much of the funding previously available to arts programming was cut.
More such programming for high schoolers is needed. And it should be a priority to ensure that the programming is and continues to be relevant to the youth involved. Research shows that high schoolers will be more invested in services and attend more consistently if programs are specifically designed to align with their interests. In other ASPs, programs that have generated intense interest include classes on coding, video production, music creation, robotics, resume creation, career guidance, college preparation and even in-depth group discussions about topics of interest. Including students in the design and expansion of local high school ASPs with surveys and feedback would go a long way to ensuring the relevance of and more buy-in for the program offerings.
It would also behoove the city to look at the possibility of locating additional teen centers such as the 26 nationwide (although none in Florida) Kroc Community Centers. The typical Kroc Community Center includes fitness, wellness, athletics, after-school care, young programs such as music and film production, family resources, and services for seniors. However, the Kroc Centers emphasize the importance of tailoring each center to a community’s specific needs. Again, students should be involved in order to create meaningful opportunities.
With all of this information in hand, informed steps can then be taken to move forward with the needed expansion and improvement of Jacksonville’s ASPs. It should not, however, be a process that’s left totally to any one agency. City agencies designed to fund such programming operate at the whims of continually changing political winds and nonprofits all too often operate totally independently, without input from or partnerships with other institutions and nonprofits that could greatly improve outcomes.
“Now more than ever, it is time for Florida to focus on public policy that improves community and student health, safety, education and well-being. We must convene business leaders, policymakers, program providers and parents to thoughtfully create an afterschool system that provides youth a safe and enriching place to go when the school day or school year ends.”7
Finally, the Mayor’s Youth at Work Partnership Steering Committee (Steering Committee) is currently looking at barriers to post-secondary success for Jacksonville’s young people. It is outlining a nascent series of recommendations as it is collecting information through a variety of research strategies, including speaking directly with the city’s adolescents. Although that committee is still in its data-collection phase, it has already pinpointed several ideas for boosting the success of young adults after graduation.
Some of the recommendations currently being considered center on the provision of career training for youth to provide a clear pathway to success after graduation. Many of these programs would take place during students’ high school years. Unlike Alliance programs, the committee would focus its efforts on lower socio-economic sectors.
Such an effort is directly relatable to preventing youth crime and supporting community safety. Without the ability to earn money legally, young people are too often pulled into illegal means during their teens. Everett, a member of the Steering Committee, explains that when children reach working age they more acutely feel a “fiscal strain.”
From a teen’s perspective “if your parents are making minimum wage and they’re struggling and barely making it, you feel like you have to help out. The next step is ‘If I can’t make money legally, I’m going to make it illegally.’ I don’t think people understand how hard it is for these kids.”
The progress of this Steering Committee needs to be carefully tracked and its findings released to the larger community. The support of Jacksonville’s business community, in particular, needs to be cultivated to ensure programmatic success. Nonprofits can also provide the city with a valuable partnership, including obtaining funding after the initial phases of this project are completed to ensure that its recommendations are carried out.
Provision of high-quality After-School Programming need be a citywide focus. The larger Jacksonville community should be aware that their interests are aligned with supporting ASPs. On simply a financial scale, ASPs can save local communities $3 for every $1 invested by increasing a child’s future earning potential, improving their performance at school, and reducing crime and welfare costs.8
Specific In-School Programming
The educational in-school time available to teachers is already limited by the need to cover specific academic subjects. These are absolutely necessary to ensure students’ progress toward successful graduations. We recognize that necessity but recommend three programs be strengthened or added to help students more successfully navigate their personal lives.
Media literacy essential
The Second Recommendation involves the creation of a specific curriculum to address young people’s use of social media. These are digital platforms that have become increasingly popular among young people, with Pew Research Center concluding that eight out of 10 Americans under 18 use at least one social medium.9 What is becoming clear to researchers is that these social media platforms are also being used increasingly to showcase and facilitate acts of violence.
We spoke to many people living or working within the affected communities who mentioned the dangers associated with social media. One participant called it the “weaponization of technology.”
“I’m talking particularly about the use of social media by young adults to create divisiveness and disputes and share them, then have the resulting anger and disputes spill out onto the streets. I see that every single day in Jacksonville,” he told JustJax.
State Attorney Melissa Nelson also has recognized the complicity of social media in stoking on-the-street violence. “When we put together a compilation of various videos posted by different gangs, we reached a startling conclusion. Of the 12 young men featured in these videos, all were either dead or in prison.”
(Note: The below video was provided by the State Attorney’s office in Jacksonville and contains an actual video created by the local gang Cutt Circle. The comment at the end of the video is one often used by gangs to attempt to circumvent prosecution.)
Not only do online platforms allow content through which young people can engage in bullying, shaming, and harassment against their peers, these platforms are increasingly being used to showcase gang violence and bitter disputes that all too often lead to real-life violence and homicide.10 One of the leading researchers in gang violence and social media, Stanford professor Forrest Stuart, writes that “gang-associated youth have ostensibly transferred the street code directly to social media.”11
Stuart’s examination of the social media activity by gang members of Chicago’s South Side12 show how young people use such platforms to invalidate and challenge rivals. It’s a new brand of gang warfare in which members post print messages, videos and songs that mock rivals, highlight feuds, attract new members, and garner support. Depending on the tactics used, these online threats can spill onto the street.
And it’s not just happening in Chicago. There are countless examples of such activity in Duval County. Perhaps the latest occurred early February of this year on Ken Knight Drive. An online argument had grown throughout the day between two high school girls. By that afternoon, the two had agreed to fight in person and eventually more than 100 people congregated to watch the expected fight. One person was shot and killed in the resulting melee.
Such online traffic has even attracted a new term, “Internet Banging,” to describe how gang members trade insults and make threats of violence.13 Police around the country now actively monitor social media content to gain insight into how and where violence might break out. Duval County Sheriff Mike Williams is no exception.
“In recent years, our commitment to reduce violent crime has had to expand to include a robust strategy within the social media arena. Every investigation we do must now include following the elaborate trail of social media and all the various platforms that criminals are using,” he told JustJax. “Social media is the primary avenue for instigating conflicts between groups as well as organizing efforts to carry out violent acts. If we are not on top of those activities, we will lose our edge in reducing violent crimes in our community.”
Although today’s youngest generation certainly know how to utilize these new digital technologies, they’re not particularly well informed about the effects of social media. They may be unable to discern truth from falsehood, to correctly analyze media content, to judge the effect the content might have on others, to understand how and why different users might interact differentially with the content, to understand how a creator’s perceptions and intentions might affect the content, and to decide whether or not to act themselves.
In short, they are adept at using the media but are not able to critically and objectively examine their content.
In an effort to help young people understand the messages they’re being bombarded with on a daily basis, we recommend the school district adopt a media literacy program. Although media literacy programs have been touted for years, we suggest that the schools move beyond those mounted in the past that looked primarily at objectionable media content in the traditional entertainment media (movies, games, television, advertisements, and so on). In these programs while young consumers are often provided with tools to decipher content, much of the “prevention” aspects of the programs are aimed at censorship and limiting exposure.
We suggest that while the new training should include such topics, it should also include online and social media. Tactics should be included that show children how to evaluate online messages, recognize and evaluate risk, effectively deal with cyber bullying, identify deception online, etc. Children must be helped in their understanding that there are real consequences to online behavior, and to recognize their responsibility and how to adhere online to social norms present in real life.
Critical media literacy programs should be offered at all stages of the educational process. There are books available for use by elementary school children as well as guides that give teachers recommendations for how to incorporate such topics into their classrooms. Middle-school students can be made increasingly aware of how context, power, ownership and other factors need to be considered when deciphering messages. That conversation should be continued into the high school years.
Such media literacy is essential for all ages, said Dr. Margaret Stewart, a communication and social media professor at the University of North Florida.
“We’re living in a wholly different world. Now what’s happening is it’s leading to violent acts offline, it’s a different process for how this criminal behavior comes into being. We have, especially among the youngest users, an almost delusional sense of reality about these platforms and how they work. Media literacy is an understanding that this online reality actually does have consequences.”
We recommend that a dedicated group be established to review critical media literacy programs with the aim of incorporating them into the Duval County schools’ curriculum. These programs should contain segments on teaching kids how to critically evaluate social media and should be refined to address the developmental differences and usage of children, K-12.
More minority history needed
Our Third Recommendation deals with the presentation of minority history within the schools of Duval County. Florida Statute 1003.42(2)(h) requires that the state’s schools teach African-American history. Specifically, the statue stipulates the curriculum should include:
“The history of African Americans, including the history of African peoples before the political conflicts that led to the development of slavery, the passage to America, the enslavement experience, abolition, and the contributions of African Americans to society. Instructional materials shall include the contributions of African Americans to American society.”
Duval County Public Schools have been proactive and have inserted such information into their curriculum. The schools have purchased a collection of books appropriate for children at all grade levels. Black history has been infused within the social studies curriculum; teachers have been engaged in structured professional development.
Those efforts have been recognized by the state, which named the Duval County School District one of only a handful of Florida districts to receive exemplary status recognition for its focus on Black history. Despite these efforts, some, including high school students, have argued that there are inadequacies within the schools’ Black history curriculum.14 In mid-February, students from across the county protested that Black voices weren’t being heard and Black history was being ignored.
One Black high school senior complained that “there are so many gaps in what I’m taught about my history, a part of American history that needs to be a priority. And at the very least, it should be taught during Black History Month.” That sentiment was echoed by the young adults interviewed by JustJax who had grown up in the city.
Public school teacher Erin Conklin, a social studies supervisor within the school district, noted that one of the gaps in the district’s Black history curriculum was content dealing with local history.15 In addition, she told JustJax she would like to see more local history on other minority groups included in the curriculum. In fact, the school district has put together a task force to look at what’s currently being covered and what historical content is excluded.
“That is one of the things we have been working on – our local history,” Conklin said, “and we’re always looking for histories of minorities.”
Why is the provision of Black and other minority history so important? Because copious research has shown that socialization of minority children to the historic significance of their race and ethnic group increases their self-esteem, heightens their coping strategies, improves their abilities to relate to others, and is correlated with better academic outcomes.16
The incorporation of local Black and minority history into the curriculum is especially important.17 Such information will give minority youth not only insight into the geographically based events and people that shaped their lived environment, but also provide historic role models.
Jacksonville has a rich Black history, with an abundance of historical figures who were born in, lived in, or passed through Jacksonville – James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Anna Kingsley, Bob Hayes, A.J. Lewis, Rutledge Henry Pearson, A. Phillip Randolph, Augusta Savage, Patrick Chappelle, Ma Rainey, Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman, and many more to learn from – throughout the year, across academic subjects, and reflecting a spectrum of human endeavors.
There are also many opportunities to celebrate and learn more about the places themselves that have been central to Jacksonville Black history. One such example is The Ritz Theatre and Museum, with a mission to “research, record, and preserve the material and artistic culture of African American life in Northeast Florida and the African Diaspora, and present it in an educational or entertaining format, showcasing the many facets that make up the historical and cultural legacy of this community.”18
“History is fantastically empowering,” one JustJax respondent said. “If children knew their own local history it would give them a sense of belonging to the community and make them proud of who they are.”
Additionally, Jacksonville has a diverse student population whose members should be acquainted with their own racial and ethnic histories. As recounted in the schools’ own report, the 2018-2019 fiscal school year saw a population that reflected “the racial diversity of the surrounding county with 43 percent African-American, 34 percent Caucasian, 13 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian, and 6 percent other or biracial students.”19
That also reflects the early diversity of the city, which around the turn of the last century was unusually diverse within the state.20 Due to, at least in part, the accessible rail traffic into the city, the population boomed in the late 1800s for several decades. Along with European-Americans, over the years have come a substantial number of immigrants from Syria and other Arabic countries, China, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Philippines, India and so on.
While the stories of these immigrants to Jacksonville have been less publicized, Duval County students should be aware of their contributions as well, and in a variety of ways.
For example, Jacksonville’s four universities could play a key role in gathering stories as part of classes (see, for example, uncoveringjax.wordpress.com). Children’s books for those in elementary school could be created. Audio-collection entities such as StoryCorps could be invited here to record the memories of the community’s elders. There are countless meaningful ways to tap into the city’s resources.
In addition, we recommend that Duval County school teachers receive funding to engage in training, workshops, seminars and even travel (for example, to the Equal Justice Initiative and its associated museums in Montgomery, Alabama) to enhance their personal knowledge of minority history and how to incorporate it widely into the curriculum. Moreover, teachers need to be equipped not only to expand their curricula, but supported and trained as to how to teach Black and other minority history as integral to Jacksonville’s history.
One new initiative, EdJusticeJax, is emerging as a promising hub of training, camaraderie and support for Jacksonville’s educators “who are striving to be anti-racist and culturally responsive.” This newly launched initiative reflects an important understanding that it is not simply enough to “teach history”; rather it is important to build a qualified and competent cadre of teachers who are not only dispensing facts and reciting history, but are doing so in supportive, research-and culturally informed ways.21 Lily Exantus, explains, “EdJusticeJax was founded by a group of educators with the desire to create a space in which to grapple with the complexity of race and all its intersectionalities and its impact on education.”
Further, she asserts, “I believe that the role of educators is crucial to Jacksonville, simply because teachers are the first contact outside of familial ties for kids. What we begin to learn about who we are, we learn from school. Therefore our schools and educators should be equipped with the tools and attitudes to support the development of a whole child, which includes their mind, their body, and their spirit.”
Trainings and education are especially important for non-minority teachers who may have difficulty addressing racial and ethnic differences and discrimination, according to interviews with JustJax. And that’s precisely why they’re so important.
“Inclusion and greater empathy don’t happen by themselves,” Equal Justice Initiative Director Bryan Stevenson has said. “We have to work at them. We have to commit ourselves even when it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable. We have to be mindful of that as we struggle to move forward on the many challenging issues of equity that face our country.”22
Mental health stigma hurts
Our Fourth Recommendation involves the creation of additional special programming to target the stigma associated with mental illness. The school system currently has a once-a-month 30-minute program that addresses mental health (Wellness Wednesdays). Among other things, it also actively assesses children’s mental health at specific grade levels, and trains its teachers and staff in mental health first aid. In addition, during Covid, the district has made telehealth counseling available.
That’s exceptionally important as the majority of mental illnesses tend to first appear during the adolescent years, when children are attending middle or high school. If those illnesses are not treated, they can lead to serious difficulties later, including suicide, acting out, and other behaviors. But if they’re caught early and appropriate treatment is provided, such outcomes can be minimized.
One national organization that’s attempting to change the stigma surrounding mental health diagnoses is Bring Change to Mind (bringchange2mind.org). It encourages dialogue surrounding mental health and raises awareness of the difficult problems related to social stigmas. Although its outreach is not bounded by age, it has a track record of reaching out to high-schoolers to advocate for mental health understanding.
Its research shows that three-quarters of mental illnesses start before the age of 24. In addition, 73 percent of high schoolers report that they’ve encountered a mental health crisis at some point in their young lives.
Duval County students are no exception. In fact, local research shows students are especially at risk here for mental health issues.
For example, the 2020 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey23 found that Duval County middle-schoolers and high-schoolers reported depressive symptoms at a higher rate than state averages. In addition, 34.1 percent of Duval’s high school students reported they had a mentally ill family member compared to 30.5 statewide.
Similarly, the 2019 Duval County Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS)24 found that among middle-schoolers, 31.9 percent had seriously considered suicide, 20.4 percent had made a plan to attempt suicide, and 16.9 percent had had attempted suicide. In high school, the rates were just as concerning. Among Jacksonville’s high-schoolers, 22.7 had seriously considered suicide, 18.8 percent had made a suicide plan, and 18.9 percent had actually attempted to kill themselves.
In most years, the figures for Duval County exceeded both national and state rates. As an example, below is a graph that depicts students’ answers over the past decade on one of the most telling YRBS questions: “Have you ever thought seriously about killing yourself?”
A large part of the problem may be that while many young people could benefit from mental health intervention only about a third of those who need it actually access treatment.25 Most research finds that the percentage of treatment for minority children is even lower.
Although the reasons for not seeking treatment are many, one of the primary deterrents to treatment-seeking for young people is the stigma that surrounds mental illness and the discrimination that results from that stigma.26 Once again, research finds that mental health stigma among racial minorities is more common than among White people.27 Some of that may be seen in YRBS data, which shows that Black students from Jacksonville are less likely on the YRBS than White students to respond affirmatively to the questions regarding whether they’ve contemplated suicide.
It’s unclear exactly what’s happening here. It may be that suicide is actually contemplated by fewer Black students than White students and that the data reflects that difference. Or, it may be that, as researchers have found, Black students may be considering suicide an equal or greater amount than White students but feel less comfortable sharing that information due to the stigma attached to mental illness.
In Jacksonville, those stigmas do prevent many from seeking mental health care.28 Respondents in this survey told interviewers that the fear of others becoming aware of their illness would likely cause them to avoid treatment altogether.
Vicki Waytowich, executive director of the Partnership for Child Health in Jacksonville, said the presence of a stigma surrounding mental health makes such illnesses differ from all others.
“We normalize all other illnesses. If you have cancer nobody thinks about going to the doctor. If you don’t normalize mental health, you’ll have people who won’t get that need addressed. In this country, 20 percent of the population meets the definition of having a mental health illness. In a classroom of 30 kids, we’re talking about six kids who if they don’t get their needs met it’ll impact them emotionally and socially throughout their lifetimes.”
The RAND Corporation, in a study of California’s response to mental illness29 concluded that the elimination of mental health stigma could provide the key to ensuring more people seek treatment. The study found that programs such as California’s were effective in reducing the stigma associated with mental illness.
Mental health advocates have suggested that information and stigma-reduction efforts regarding mental illnesses should be introduced at all grade levels. However, the effects of mental health stigma may be especially detrimental during a child’s middle school years,30 a time that coincides with the onset of many mental illnesses. If existing stigmas prevent the child from receiving treatment, they may suffer future consequences of that lack of care.
A child’s unwillingness to admit a mental illness may be compounded by the fact that the years between middle and high school also represent the precise time when peer pressure to conform is the strongest.31 During these years, children often take great care to conceal any differences that might make them stand out from others. Those differences can include mental illness.
In reviewing information from Duval County’s YRBS data, we note that this is also precisely the time when children become much less likely to admit to suicidal thoughts. The willingness of students to answer in the affirmative to whether they had considered suicide dropped off enormously between the eighth and ninth grade. Is this due to a combination of peer pressure and stigma? If so, then perhaps these are the years when stigma reduction is the most crucial.
While the school district does dedicate a single Wellness Wednesdays session to stigma, we recommend that an effort be made to increase such content and that nonprofits partner with the school district to either create a novel approach to eradicating stigma or pinpoint a program that has seemed to work elsewhere and help the district to secure it.
Additionally, an important component in whether or not a child seeks mental health treatment involves the support of that child’s parent or caregiver.32 That’s why we strongly suggest that the Duval County Public School system also make an online stigma-reduction program available via the parent portal, Focus.
Interestingly, the city of Jacksonville may already be laying some of the groundwork for this recommendation. City Ordinance 2021 proposes that $200,000 of already designated mental health funding be earmarked for Hearts 4 Minds, a Jacksonville nonprofit whose primary focus is reducing mental health stigma. The money would go toward mounting a stigma-reduction campaign, although not specifically focused on public schools.
If passed (the ordinance will be voted on within weeks of the writing of this report) this ordinance could provide a perfect impetus for the creation of outside nonprofit and school district partnerships with Hearts 4 Minds. Director Sheryl Johnson has already indicated she’d be open to creating such partnerships with other city institutions en route to a greater acceptance of mental illness.
“Until we all view mental health issues as something real and personal we’ll continue to see barriers to care,” she told JustJax. “But we are perched on the precipice of change. By bringing people together, we believe we can win this war and change how we look at mental illness.” .
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2Duriak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., & Pachan, M. (2010, March 19). “A Meta-Analysis of After-School Programs That Seek to Promote Personal and Social Skills in Children and Adolescents.” American Journal of Community Psychology. 45:294-309.
3Piha, S., & Sinski, D. (2013). “Connecting Older Youth to Success Through Afterschool.” In T.K. Peterson (Ed.) Expanding Minds and Opportunities: Leveraging the Power of Afterschool and Summer Learning for Student Success.
4Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, Council for a Strong America (2019, Oct.). “From Risk to Opportunity: Afterschool Programs Keep Kids safe When Juvenile Crime Peaks.” Retrieved March 21, 2021, from https://strongnation.s3.amazonaws.com/documents/693/4af605ed-7f54-4d11-81fe-ce6ec893b106.pdf
5Little, P., Wimer, C., & Weiss, H.B. (2008, February). “After school programs in the 21st century: Their potential and what it takes to achieve it.” Issues and Opportunities in Out-of-School Time Evaluation Brief No. 10. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project.
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