Youth leader

Teach them to read. More education = fewer murders

This year in Hamilton County, 15 minors were charged with murder, more than in the past four years combined. Why the increase? “Kids Who Kill,” The Enquirer’s series on youth violence continues with this conversation.

Dr. O’dell Owens was born and raised in Cincinnati. He then went to college in Antioch, then to Yale and Harvard. Dr Owens is a former Hamilton County Coroner, past President of Cincinnati State Technical & Community College, former Medical Director / Acting Director of Health of the Cincinnati Health Department, and most recently President and CEO of Interact for Health.

Enquirer reporter Terry DeMio: You’ve been talking about this topic your entire career. What is your main message?

Owens: The higher the graduation rate, the lower the homicide rate.

Where are we at this year, with teenagers accused of murder, what are your thoughts and ideas on that?

When I was a coroner, one day the staff came to me and said, “We have a homicide. I said, ‘I’ll tell you what the situation is. There is going to be a dead black man. Drugs were involved. The man did not finish high school. We opened his mouth and there was cocaine. He had dropped out of school. It was the worst day of my life. That I could predict. Things change. The problem is, we’ve allowed a culture of dealing with adversity with a gun to develop.

So many children use guns. How do children get them?

Well first, either a child is going to take a gun that he finds in his own house. Or they will go to their uncle. Or get it from a cousin. People don’t look at their guns every day. People don’t realize it’s gone that day. Second, a kid will buy a gun – because the guns are there. The large number of guns are bought by girlfriends. The girlfriends have no criminal records, they can go and buy a gun. And then third, they are stolen. They will be stolen from the home or the home of a non-relative, or from a car. People leave guns in their cars.

How then to ensure the safety of children?

We don’t pay enough attention to the kids who get out of trouble, who come from the same building (school) and even from the same family. And I had children who said to me, ‘Dr. Owens, why can’t we get some help to get out of trouble? I have received letters from children who say, ‘I want to do well but I don’t know how. Who will help me? ‘ It breaks your heart.

Is there anything new about this?

Church membership is declining. The neighborhoods are gone. Neighborhoods used to take care of the neighborhood. What you see is you see these young children imitating what they see on television. There is such violence now. They swear more. There is more physical violence, they hit more.

Do you see light on the horizon?

Our salvation right now is the preschool promise. It provides vouchers for 3- and 4-year-olds to attend a quality preschool, and the first indicators of the tests are, it works. These children were in preschool for most of the past two years. The other children? We should be doing six days a week.

And I’ve been saying it for years, 20, 30 years: they can’t read. It should be: That’s all you’re going to do for next year is learn to read. Now people will say, well, they’re going to be late. They’re late anyway! Let’s just stop and give them a skill that will give them some self-esteem. And build from there.

If you increase the graduation rate by 20%, you reduce your criminal assault rate by 10%. (Research generally supports the argument that more education leads to less criminal activity and violent crime.)

But you can’t just focus on guns. You have to focus on the bigger problem.

You talk about the lack of family and community support. Why is this so important?

When you don’t surround yourself with these kids, the gang does. They’ll say, hey, and they put $ 5 in an 8-year-old’s pocket to go get food. Later, it is a little more money to transport a package. And it continues from there. You can’t just watch homicides.

And do they have a life that I can’t even begin to imagine?

Yes. We have to dig. The majority of the people who commit these homicides, the majority of these people do not take care of tomorrow. There is no tomorrow.

I have had children who would say, when they were 16, “I expect to either be in jail or die before I turn 21.” So what’s going to stop them from doing whatever they want? They grow up in these regions, they don’t really leave them. They can go to another part of town, but they don’t see people who are role models.

And the kids, if they don’t read at the third grade level, you’re going to see them on TV. From kindergarten to grade three, you learn to read. After the third year, you read to learn.

If they can’t read, they have no self-esteem.

I remember once taking four local teenagers – 16 years old, and putting them in the coroner’s car. One of the things they told me was, I said, “What’s going to get you out of the corner?” They said, “Oh, if I could find a job that pays $ 10 an hour.” And I’m like, $ 10 an hour? It’s not a lot. But I took them to Kroger’s. We got out five minutes later. None of them were able to complete the request. They were unable to complete the request. So where were they? Back to the street.

So when I became president of the state of Cincinnati, I said, listen, we’ve got to have jobs for people who can only write their names. Write only. Their. Names.

One of the things we did was list the things you couldn’t do in class, but in time. We have three months – 90 days – people would say, “Oh, I can give you three months”. Well, I can teach you how to draw blood in three months, get you a job to draw blood.

You have to deal with it in the short term: get the guns off the streets. Add federal charges for firearms. Be tough on them. But you have to manage the long term. Educate these children. Feed them. There are children who never had seconds. Never had two hot dogs. And if they are hungry, they will fly.

I’ve seen first graders who get free breakfast try to put a few boxes of cereal in their pockets.

How does it all make you feel?

You have to hold onto your feelings so that you don’t get complacent and just accept it.

So we fail?

Of course we are. People talk about a collective impact. There is no collective impact in Cincinnati. If so, tell me why do children go to bed hungry? Collective impact means everyone has an interest. We have no collective will. Show me a social problem that we’ve healed.

The above conversation has been edited for clarity. Enquirer reporter Terry DeMio recorded and transcribed the interview before editing it. In some cases, questions and answers have been shortened and moved to make it easier to follow up on conversations and remove unnecessary asides and repetitions.