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Professors use data to fight violence

Professors in the USF College of Public Health are working to prevent crime in the university area, such as the armed robbery that was reported at 42nd Street and Fletcher Avenue on Saturday. ORACLE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU 

Violence in the university area has become a heated issue over the years, but now educators at USF are fighting back. 

To combat violence in the USF area, the College of Public Health and the Hillsborough County Violence Prevention Collaborative created Safe and Sound Hillsborough to stop crime before it happens. 

“I think to actively take a prevention approach is the right way to go, rather than just reacting to things after they happen,” said Martha Coulter, a professor of public health professor and the director of Harrell Center, a division of the College of Public Health that researches family violence prevention. 

With data collected by Hillsborough County’s Youth Outreach Survey and the Prevention Institute, the USF College of Public Health formed a picture of the challenges faced by young people in Hillsborough County that could nurture violent tendencies. 

Carla Vandeweerd, assistant professor and health associate director at the USF College of Public Health, said the underlying problems ranged from kids failing out of school to domestic violence. 

“A lot of children reported that they don’t feel like adults in their neighborhood really know one other,” she said. “As a result of that, maybe they wouldn’t know necessarily if abuse or neglect is going on.” 

To visualize violence in the area, the survey generated a heat map that showed USF as “dark green” for all criteria. This means the campus is measured as relatively safe, though it is between two high-crime areas in Temple Terrace. 

“I think USF itself is much more free of crime than the area surrounding it, which has a long history of being troubled,” Coulter said.

According to the University Area Community Development Center, 80 percent of all violent crime in Hillsborough County in 2013 took place in the 3.4-mile outskirts of the university. A person living in this area is over 10 times more likely to be a victim of violence and about 8 times more likely to be a victim of homicide than anywhere else in the county.

Safe and Sound Hillsborough’s five-year plan aims to reduce these statistics. The strategic plan lists three factors critical to preventing violence: cooperation between government, education and individual community members. 

“Quite an open call was made to bring anyone to the table who had an interest in these issues, and to really make sure that they got to have their voices heard,” Vandeweerd said. “Everyone feels like they’re getting towards goals that are important to them.”

The plan also concentrates on “risk factors,” such as low grades or gang activity. 

Coulter said parents increasing their involvement with their children both inside and outside school, such as sports or community volunteering, would go a long way in preventing violence.

Though the full data analysis won’t be complete for three months, Coulter said researchers know Hillsborough youth want a change in their community, as well as more adult involvement outside of school. 

Coulter said an increase in support services would boost the sense of community in Hillsborough, and thereby reduce crime. 

“I would like to see an infrastructure throughout the county where people are getting together in communities and trying to support the kids,” she said. 

Both professors stressed the project’s focus on the positive. Vandeweerd said people must understand the constructive force of education. 

“Students do really feel like they belong at school and they do have a person in their life that they can talk to and get support from,” she said. “The larger community as a whole, they’re not too sure how much adults they don’t know well would really get involved or take action.” 

While the youth’s lack of confidence in community adults is a problem, Coulter said she is optimistic that with the right guidance, neighborhoods can become more involved in childhood success. 

“I think that the ideal situation in five years would be that we didn’t have kids saying that they didn’t feel a sense of belonging in their community or in their neighborhoods,” she said. “What are the good things going on? What can we build on?”