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Boone: Reducing Peoria violence requires root cause work, not just a punitive approach

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Peoria Public Schools Resource Officers
A Peoria Public Schools resource officer playing basketball with Manual Academy students at a Lights On, Peoria event in 2021.

Peoria Public Schools director of school safety Demario Boone says a collaborative, holistic approach is what's needed to address community violence in the city.

That was the sentiment of a piece Boone penned in the August issue of the Community Word newspaper.

One recent collaboration is the partnership between Peoria Public Schools resource officers and Peoria police officers on Friday and Saturday nights, as well as certain special events.

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Peoria Public Schools
Demario Boone

"It's really just trying to meet youth where they are in their places of play, away from just school hours. Because, you know, as we know, school safety is not just during that eight hours a day, it's it's a 24 hour a day job now," said Boone. "Because sometimes, away from school, a lot of kids have the most trauma there."

Boone said school resources officers build strong relationships with the kids, to the point where students see past the uniform. Those connections can serve as a launching pad to allow earlier youth interventions, and get children and their families connected with needed resources.

"It's just more of a proactive approach, rather than, you know, fight happens, kids runs off," he said. "It ends up into a fight on Monday morning at school, which can turn into a beef on the street on Tuesday, which could turn into a shooting on Wednesday. And we're just trying to interrupt that."

The school resources officers will also be assisting with curfew enforcement. Boone said that's not about writing tickets, but making sure parents know where their kids are at night on the weekends, in an effort to keep them out of trouble.

Boone said this approach is one example of the root causes work he's focused upon in his school security approach. That means more than just metal detectors and bulletproof glass, he said.

"We have a lot of schools that are in high poverty areas, redlined areas, areas that don't have direct access to mental health services, don't have direct access to a grocery store. They have food deserts," he said. "We need to start with that root cause work. And we know what that if those areas feel good, safe and secure, that bleeds over into good, safe and secure children that go into schools that make the schools a lot more safe and secure."

Boone said a punitive approach doesn't work if issues like poverty and food deserts aren't being addressed. He used the Woodstock '99 documentary as an example of the results of resource deprivation.

"You can literally see three days where people show up the first day, they get extremely hot, they're not getting water, they get restless about that. The area is just garbage just left everywhere, the Porta Potty shut down," Boone said. "And over the course of three days, you can see the deterioration of these people at this event, where finally on the final day, they burned the place down. And that is the story of American poverty and certain areas, and why people act out when those resources are strained."

Boone's Community Word column talks about the community working together to ensure equitable access to resources, like behavioral health services. He said while someone can throw a rock and hit a medical center in the 61615 ZIP code, it's not the same in the 61605, where white flight has left the South Side resource-poor and blighted, with boarded-up homes and overgrowth.

He said that's a problem, because what affects South Peoria, affects the whole community in the long run. In Boone's view, a thriving Peoria has fewer disparities and less segregation between ZIP codes.

"If we don't fix it now, it's going to be everybody's problem. It's not just a select group of people. It's not just poor people. Crime is going to affect everybody. The economy in Peoria will go bad if one part of the city fails, and can't thrive. That should be that mindset, and I put in the piece, that we are our brother's keeper," he said.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.