WASHINGTON — FIVE-YEAR-OLDS in New Haven, Conn., learn through Project Charlie how to make decisions between what's good and what's bad. That's not unusual for a kindergarten classroom. But by the time those five-year-olds reach the tender age of 9, Project Charlie has prepared them to decide whether or not to bring a gun to school.
Today, the Department of Education reports that 1 in 5 high school students carries a weapon on a regular basis. Educators, communities, and now the federal government are looking toward prevention and early intervention as a primary tool in fighting youth violence. Led by Attorney General Janet Reno, the Clinton administration is shifting the focus of the national anti-violence strategy from the courtroom to the neighborhoods.
"Violence starts at home and unless we stop it in the home, we're never going to stop it in the streets," Ms. Reno said Wednesday at a violence-prevention conference in Washington.
Drawing on her experiences in Dade County, Fla., Reno is calling on local groups to mobilize at the community level and strengthen the family networks of children to prevent them from turning to violence. The two-day conference featured various local programs, such as Project Charlie, that intervene early in children's lives and help them develop skills needed to resolve conflict nonviolently.
"I am convinced that the great laboratories of America right now are the communities," Reno said in a May speech at the National Summit on Drug Policy.
Reno's tactics have the support of the Department of Justice as well as three other federal agencies, including the Department of Education. The conference, co-sponsored by several agencies, was the first to target prevention rather than law enforcement.
"If we use all the money we spend to put juveniles in jail for social programs, we can make such a difference," Reno said.
RENO is also backed by executive approval. If President Clinton's Safe Schools Act passes, communities may have the means to act on her proposals. The bill is the first to set aside federal money for the exclusive purpose of fighting crime in schools. It will distribute $175 million over two years to educational agencies in crime-ridden neighborhoods.
Department of Education Secretary Richard Riley, however, said that in schools, tough enforcement policies dealing with violence and weapon-carrying must be combined with comprehensive social programs to teach students "realities and consequences of gunplay."
By targeting communities as vehicles for antiviolence programs, Reno intends to take tremendous pressure off schools, where about 3 million violent incidents occur each year, according to the Department of Education.
"We need to free teachers' time to teach and allow them to deal with unprecedented educational challenges," Reno said.
Educators claim that public schools, especially in inner cities, are often burdened with having to provide youths with an education as well as developmental support their environments do not offer them.
"Schools are blamed, but the communities are so bad," said Elizabeth Weiser-Ramirez, director of advocacy at the ASPIRA association, a youth foundation in Washington. "The Department of Education funnels programs into schools, and they have limited resources and aren't prepared to deal with that."
Intervention, Reno emphasized, must begin as early as "the ages 0 to 3," when children are forming their most basic skills.
But some conference participants said that although early intervention programs would have long-term benefits, they weren't capable of dealing with the youth-violence problem now. For the sixth consecutive year, gun-related deaths kill more teenagers than all other causes combined, according to Marc Rosenberg of the Center for Disease Control.
"In the rush to help youngsters, you've written off a generation of 14-, 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds," said Jose Morales, project director of the community group Chicago Commons. "They're in danger of becoming a statistic."