Cleveland Turning to Rec Centers to Tackle Youth Crime

Youth playing at community rec center
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Rec center workers look to build relationships and trust with young people so that when they spot potential trouble — often through behavior — they can refer the young people and their families to counseling.

Advance Ohio Media

By Robert Higgs

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The city of Cleveland has enlisted the help of its 22 recreation centers in an innovative effort to address crime, particularly crimes involving young people.

Rebranded as “neighborhood resource and recreation centers,” the facilities now provide trauma counselors and staff trained to detect symptoms of stress that can affect behavior and lead to violence.

But the plan’s success will require more than counselors and staff training, Tracy Martin-Thompson, the city’s chief of prevention, intervention, and opportunity for youth and young adults, told cleveland.com.

“It requires a complete culture change,” Martin-Thompson said.

Past practices will not suffice, said Michael Cox, the city’s director of recreation and public works. “We used to just toss a basketball out and when a kid acts up, send him home,” he said.

Today, rec center workers look to build relationships and trust with young people so that when they spot potential trouble — often through behavior — they can refer the young people and their families to counseling.

In 2019, the city focused on getting counselors in place and training staffs to launch the program.

Over the next year the city will assess, center by center, how well the staffs have integrated the new approach, making adjustments and bolstering efforts where needed, Martin-Thompson said.

The crime-prevention efforts are part of a broader initiative announced earlier this year by Mayor Frank Jackson to use the rec centers to link residents with services in addition to recreation.

Components include:

  • Youth and adult education, ranging from K-12 enrichment programs to post education skills training.
  • Job and career readiness, including career planning, job training and job-placement services for adults.
  • Health and wellness education, raising awareness of both physical and emotional issues, to aid people of all ages.
  • Youth leadership and development, including use of mentors who grew up in situations similar to what youth face today and can serve as role models.
  • Arts programming, both for performing and visual arts.

The city’s Department of Aging has used the centers to better publicize its services and get more information — such as health and safety tips — into the hands of elderly Clevelanders.

But the key piece of the plan is addressing what counselors described as toxic stress — a byproduct of trauma that can affect behavior in children and adults and lead to violence.

By treating crime as a public health issue, the city envisions helping young people to deal with the stress, avoid criminal behavior and become successful adults.

We want to give [kids] an equal chance to get the footing needed for them to cope in life,” Cox said.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Learn more about crime in Cleveland in our previous coverage:

Experts Struggle To Explain Rise in Cleveland Gun Violence

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