Youth violence prevention program funding hangs in the balance as Virginia legislature reworks state budget

This article was reprinted with permission from Virginia Mercury

Two Virginia school divisions are slated to launch a pilot program intended to help reduce youth involvement in gangs and violent behaviors with guns but it’s unclear if the initiative will be fully funded, as lawmakers go back to the drawing board to work up a new state spending plan.

On April 2, Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed legislation to create the Community Builders Pilot Program that will start with Roanoke and Petersburg City Public Schools students entering the eighth grade. Pupils in both districts face high rates of gun violence and cases of students bringing firearms to school.

Bill carriers Sen. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, and Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, said unlike other community violence intervention efforts centered around getting weapons off the streets, their legislation takes a different approach because it centers students.

“We’re hoping by involving young people that perhaps it helps in other ways,” said Aird, adding that such a program could also have a “residual impact” on children facing disciplinary trouble in school.

“But ultimately, [this legislation] is specifically trying to make sure that when they are no longer in school, they have another outlet that’s pouring into them and they’re not getting involved in things that can be harmful to themselves and others when they are outside of the school walls,” she said.

If the program is successful, Rasoul — who serves as the chair of the House Education Committee — said he hopes it will expand to other schools and grade levels.

“This is a great way to keep students focused, especially through the summer, and to build some healthy habits with a very specific curriculum that then follows them throughout their eighth grade year,” said Rasoul.

According to the pilot program legislation, the initiative will provide community engagement, workforce development, postsecondary education exploration, social-emotional education and development opportunities to students during the academic year after regular school hours and during the summer months.

Schools will collect data and report the program’s progress to the governor’s administration and General Assembly every November for the next two years.

Public interest in youth gun violence prevention has increased, most notably after a then-six-year-old student brought a firearm from home to his Newport News elementary school last year and shot his teacher. The teacher, Abigail Zwerner, was seriously injured but survived.

The Community Builders program might have scored a legislative win, but funding for the program will remain unclear until the governor and leaders from the General Assembly determine the final budget before the June 30 deadline.

The General Assembly backed the pilot program with $800,000 in dedicated funds over the next two years. However, the governor amended the budget, cutting the request to $400,000. It’s an example of the governor’s and the General Assembly’s differing opinions on how the commonwealth should be funded for the next two years.

Del. Mike Cherry, R-Colonial Heights, who supported the Community Builders legislation, said during the Jan. 30 House Education subcommittee hearing that he believes it to be a “great model program” and would work well with Ceasefire Virginia in supporting communities facing high levels of crime.

In 2022, Ceasefire was launched as a multi-jurisdictional approach to address violent criminal activity among serious and repeat offenders in partnership with Virginia’s attorney general’s office, elected officials and law enforcement.

The purpose of the initiative is to reduce violent crime through partnerships and investments into gang prevention and community policing. Ceasefire has been implemented in 13 cities statewide, including Petersburg and Roanoke.

“When you ask high school students ‘When did things start to go wrong?’ many times they will point to the middle school level,” Verletta White, superintendent of Roanoke City Public Schools, said during a Jan. 30 House Education subcommittee hearing.

“We want to target our rising eighth graders and show them not only the detrimental effects of violence on a community, but their responsibility and how they can be community builders instead.”

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