Mayor Mark Stodola said in his annual "State of the City" address that juvenile crime will be a continuing challenge for Little Rock.
City Administrators and community members heard from Stodola inside the foyer of the new 12th street police station. He pointed to the new confines as one symbolic achievement of the last year.
“It also represents making good on a commitment, a comitment to public safety, a comitment to place, a comitment to our midtown neighborhoods south of Interstate 630,” he said.
But amid a review of the city’s achievements of the last year including: capital improvement projects, street and drainage work; expansions by the likes of Dassault Falcon Jet, MISO, Fed Ex; developments in the Main Street and 12th street corridors; Stodola also focused on violence in the city , and the potential prevention thereof.
“It has been said that in God We Trust, but all others must bring data,” he said. “And therein lies the challenge.”
The city’s property and violent crime rates as a whole are at their lowest point in the last 20 years, he said. But the data Stodola points to is the police department’s recent analysis of juvenile violence in the city. Between 2010 and 2011, he said, there was a marked increase in the number of juveniles involved in crimes. Though the numbers have remained steady since 2011, he said, when more than 1200 juveniles committed about 2600 hundred crimes.
“The data tells us that this juvenile spike in crime is also comparable to the increase in school district incidents involving our school resource officers,” he said.
Disturbances in school can often lead kids to juvenile court; an outcome Stodola says should be avoided through better training of the school resource officers to go along with other youth development alternatives.
“We need to seek out new programs and best practices that can intervene and break these cycles. We need to focus on the issue of truancy,” Stodola said.
He said 35 percent of juvenile crimes the department analyzed occurred during the school day. 41 percent occurred between 4pm and midnight.
After the speech, Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner echoed the mayor, saying that while truancy may be an issue, there are also too many arrests occurring in schools.
“Some of these individuals need to be arrested, we need a safe environment for our kids to learn. But in some instances I feel like teachers are calling police when maybe it should be an administrative issue...we're working with our principals to deal with that. They have a tough job. There's no easy answers that,” Buckner said.
Arrests made in schools struck local activist Cheryl Warden, who works with the Arkansas Community Dispute Resolution Center. She attended the Mayor’s address and said authoritative figures in the schools are making too many premature judgments about the behavior they see.
“Remember in the days we used to say, 'oh, they're fighting.' Well now, it's called an assault,” she said. “We do not need to criminalize...offenses of children while they're on public school property.”
While she advocates for decriminalizing the behavior of violent kids, Warden said they can also be taught how to resolve conflict peacefully, something she says her organization already does in afterschool programs for a few dozen youths. But conflicts inside school are often fostered by life outside of school, as Ward 2 City Director Ken Richardson noted.
“If you look at the schools that are not proficient and you look at the neighborhood that feed those schools, you'll certainly see some real disturbing demographic information: a number of households without vehicles, a number of certainly high percentages of children of between the ages of 0 and 17 who live below the poverty rate,” Richardson said.
Richardson, Stodola and others tend to agree that poverty and the quality of neighborhood schools are linked. And Stodola remarked that now, especially in light of the conflict involving the state takeover of the Little Rock School District, the community need not lose sight of the children.
On the State Takeover of the LRSD
In response to the recent State takeover of the Little Rock School District, Stodola said,
“While the issue has been conflicted at times and acrimonious, we should not lose track of the objective we all have in common. And that's better schools for our community, better educated students and a return to local control.”
Stodola said while the city has no direct oversight of the district, he wants the community to help solve student disciplinary issues, including truancy.
Arkansas Arts Center
Stodola spoke on a range of other issues facing the city, including the possible relocation of the Arkansas Arts Center.
“The Art Center and its collection is a treasure for the state and the city. And with no offense to my friends in North Little Rock—and I do call them my friends—I believe the Arts Center should stay in the Capital City. I do not believe it is good policy to trade the existing assets of either city back and forth,” he said.
The Arkansas Arts Center Foundation--which controls the collection--has been studying the possibility of moving the art to North Little Rock. Stodola says he wants to keep the collection in place by renovating the current facility, adding more gallery, classroom and storage space.
Correction: An original version of this article stated that the Mayor said property and violent crimes were at their lowest rates in 25 years. He actually said they are at their lowest in over 20 years.