Preventing violent crimes and other destructive behavior committed by young people is a complicated challenge, but despite recent high-profile incidents involving local youths, Cole County is seeing some successes.
"It's a real tricky thing when you say, 'How do you prevent something?' or 'How can you make a difference?' — especially when you're talking about violence and serious and dangerous issues that we've been dealing with," Cole County's juvenile court administrator Michael Couty said recently about murders in the past few months that have involved teenagers in Jefferson City.
Jahuan Whirley, 16, was certified as an adult and charged Jan. 10 with second-degree murder and six other counts for a Dec. 12 shooting that left Justin Kammerich, 33, dead and another Jefferson City man seriously hurt.
Bruce Thomas, 15, was charged as an adult Dec. 13 with second-degree murder and first-degree robbery in connection with the Nov. 19 killing of Nilez Nichols, 19, who was shot at a residence on Stadium Boulevard.
"We have too many young people having access to guns. I've thought long and hard — I'm not against guns; I'm not against gun ownership. But I do have a problem when it is not against the law for a young person to possess a gun," Couty said, noting legal exceptions that do exist such as if the gun is stolen, defaced, used in the commission of a crime or being possessed in an area where it is banned
Without a law banning possession of a gun by minors, he added, there's not enough of a deterrent.
Young people's access to guns is only one issue Couty noted in connection with violence or other destructive behaviors committed by youths, though — there's behavioral issues in schools; truancy; lack of supervision at home; youth not trusting law enforcement; and creating opportunities for young people to be engaged, be held accountable and learn positive values.
"It's an education issue. It's a supervision issue. It is a parenting issue. It's multi-faceted," Couty said, adding some institutions — especially schools — have been asked to do too much that families historically have done, such as emphasize the importance of doing well in school and having a sense of responsibility and work ethic. Couty is a former Jefferson City Public Schools Board of Education member.
"It doesn't just fall on one entity," he said, adding that should include the faith community, too.
Crime and violence prevention are not direct focuses of local public schools — JCPS said that's "outside the subject matter expertise of our staff members, who are more directly focused on learning, educating and trying to provide positive engagement in the classroom, but not really through the lens of crime prevention."
However, JCPS Director of Special Services Bridget Frank said Friday: "Our focus within the school setting is to teach social, emotional and behavioral skills. And of course, we feel like if we do a really good job of teaching kids social skills and behavior skills that will make them successful here at school but then also ready for life, and that prevents, hopefully, students and kids from making decisions in the community that they shouldn't make."
Special services include behavior interventionists, school psychologists, early childhood programs, therapists, social workers, nurses and other departments.
Teaching social, emotional and behavioral skills — just as academics, such as in reading or math, are taught — and connecting students with the resources they need takes many forms within the district.
"We connect and we partner with lots of different agencies, but our behavioral support services are really just embedded into what we do," Frank said.
"We have several different positions with the district that support those efforts, and social workers are one of them. I would say that our behavior interventionists are another big piece of that, but also, everywhere from a teacher in the classroom to a principal in a building has a connection to our behavioral support program and services," she said.
"In the elementary world, we (teach skills to students) a lot through our positive behavior supports program. A teacher in the classroom, as an example, will teach lessons on a weekly basis on what are the expectations at school, but also how to make friends and how to get along with others, how to problem-solve through situations," Frank said.
Specialized positions such as social workers help in other ways. One of the district's four social workers' focuses "is to connect kids with outside services, whether that's a dental appointment, or a mental health appointment or getting them shoes," especially at the elementary level, Frank said.
Something the district has done in the past year is expand its relationship with Pathways Community Behavioral Children's Center; the number of therapists from Pathways has increased from two to eight.
Frank said anecdotally, "In talking with all of our school buildings, they definitely felt like we're reaching more kids and connecting more kids than in the past because of that increase."
"I know with juvenile court, the police, the sheriff's office — we work pretty good together in trying to identify potential issues with our youth. I think that for the juvenile court, we've tried to be more proactive," Couty said.
Proactive to him means "it's our prevention programming. I want my juvenile officers to go, and they're assigned to every school district building just to meet with the administrators to see if there's any issues going on that they can assist them with." While the officers may not be assigned to those children who administrators mention, he added, the officers can still identify other resources available to help.
"That's what I consider being proactive — trying to get ahead of the curve before problems get real serious. I truly think we do a good job within that area. I'm just hoping that the issues we have been looking at over the last several months, it's a blip for Cole County, for Jefferson City. I do not see that as the norm," Couty said of the recent violence.
The number of juveniles in Cole County committed to the custody of the Missouri Department of Social Services' Division of Youth Services has decreased, according to Youth Services' annual reports — the most recent of which was released in January 2018 and reflects the 2017 fiscal year.
Cole County had three young people committed to Youth Services in 2017 — about the same as the average number of children committed in Cole County each year between 2012-17. That's lower than the average between 2007-12 — eight children a year — and that's lower in turn than the average between 2002-07 — more than 11 children in Cole County committed to Youth Services annually.
Across Missouri, the total number of young people committed to Youth Services fell more than 51 percent between 2002-17.
On average, about 83 percent of the young people committed in that time across the state were male, compared to more than 87 percent in Cole County. Between 2012-17, all of the 21 children committed to Youth Services in Cole County were boys.
According to Boys & Girls Club of Jefferson City Executive Director Stephanie Johnson, a low local juvenile crime rate last fall actually prevented a new Boys & Girls Club program from starting until this month.
Couty cited the new Keystone program at the club as something that can set middle school-aged children on positive paths early.
"It is for middle school students. They're young enough that we can maybe modify some behavior and change direction," Johnson said.
"Once a kid enters the juvenile court system, it's a slippery slope," she added — so better not to keep entering the system early and risk getting caught up in it later.
She said the Keystone diversion program was inspired by former Jefferson City Police Department Capt. Doug Shoemaker after he went to a training event in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and learned about a successful diversion program there.
The Jefferson City program — in partnership with the Jefferson City Housing Authority and funded by a grant from the Missouri Department of Public Safety — is a three-day-a-week, 90-day alternative to juvenile detention, with counseling, mentoring and case management elements, Johnson said.
First- and second-time juvenile, low-level or status offenders who go to the Prenger Center are assessed to see if they qualify for the program, she said. Low-level offenses can include things like drugs, thefts, fights in school, and a status offense is something that would be legal for an adult, but not for a child, such as possession of alcohol.
The program, currently serving about five children, is housed outside the Boys & Girls Club's regular program and off-site from the center on Lafayette Street, Johnson said.
"We know that there's an opportunity to grow the program," Johnson said.
Her goal is to have 50-75 children a year go through the program, with at least a 75 percent retention rate — that is to say, get the youth enrolled to graduate and enter the regular Boys & Girls Club program, free of charge.
The first group of young people enrolled started Jan. 7.
"We think it's got potential to really impact kids," she said.
Staff of the Boys & Girls Club's regular program coordinate with schools to identify students' needs and if possible, get them into the club.
"We have a strong relationship at the school level, especially with the counselors," Johnson said, adding a social worker on the club's staff works with school counselors to identify students' needs.
"The mental health need of our children in this community is large," Johnson said, especially when it comes to teaching coping skills, meeting children's emotional needs and helping them navigate life.
Couty said there also have to be supportive environments for young people — places where positive values and experiences can be nurtured.
Ideally, such places are available before a young person has to make a high-stakes choice about which direction their life is going to go.
"What do we have that is a productive environment for our young people? Those are some of the things we have to look at. Yes, you have the Boys & Girls Club organized for our younger kids, but if you're an older kid, you tend not to be going to the Boys & Girls Club if you didn't grow up into it," Couty said.
"How do we then organize a community to be able to wrap itself around our young folks?" he asked.
Johnson acknowledged while the Boys & Girls Club's teen center sees 50-60 children, maybe triple the normal rate, part of the club's long-range goal is to be better at recruiting middle and high school-aged students.
"Once a child turns 16, they want to work," she said. "We're really kind of looking at some career readiness, some life skills" to incorporate into the teen center's programs, in addition to a focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
"Can we do an apprenticeship program with local business?" Johnson said of something the club has been thinking about, as well as preparing young people with soft skills for business — being at work on time, having a clean uniform.
She added the club would write a grant this spring with the intent of "next fall or at the latest, January 2020" having more of a focus in its teen program on career readiness, behavior issues and drug use prevention.
Couty also credited the opening of The Linc wellness center as a local example of opportunities that have been good for young people, as well as the rest of the community.
"We're better off than most communities with this issue," Couty said of youth-committed crime in Cole County. "It's just because we're so small, those issues are magnified much larger, and we should not see it as the norm. We shouldn't become insensitive."
News Tribune reporter Jeff Haldiman contributed to this article.