Two shootings, at Nome Park and outside Hinkley High School in November, confirmed the suspicions of Aurora leaders who were concerned that youth violence was on the rise.
A community survey cemented their concerns with data showing young people in Aurora are increasingly victims, witnesses to or perpetrators of a violent crime.
Gang violence, domestic violence, gun violence, emotional abuse, child abuse and neglect, psychological abuse, bullying, sexual violence, human trafficking, and other forms of violence, in that order, were the top 10 crimes and mental health issues most impacting youth in Aurora, preliminary community survey results show. Racial tensions, running away behaviors, lack of involvement in social activities, lack of connectedness to family or adults, substance use, low commitment to school and mental health issues, in no particular order, were the top risk factors impacting youth.
Now, after city leaders have digested the survey’s findings, they’re taking action by providing funding to organizations that can reduce the prevalence of youth violence and interrupt those instances through several planned programs and activities.
The city has $500,000 available to be split among organizations that apply for funding by March 28. The new funding also will support the city’s new Youth Violence Prevention Program, which works to increase public safety and reduce the impact of violence in Aurora’s young communities. The programming targets Aurora residents between the ages of 10 and 24.
“As youth violence continues to be a public health crisis that affects the whole community, it is critical that we partner with providers who take a holistic approach to serve youth, families and communities that are most adversely hurt by youth violence,” said Christina Amparan, the city’s youth violence prevention program manager. A comprehensive and multilayered approach is required of everyone involved, she said.
Funding for the prevention work comes from marijuana tax revenue. Aurora is dedicating 80% of the funds to supporting intervention efforts and the remaining 20% will fund prevention efforts.
Intervention could include outreach to groups involved in a violent incident in the community, hospital-based services to engage with patients during their recovery, specialized mental health treatment services, family skills training programs and crisis services to support families. Prevention work may include school-led activities and programming, safe locations, community engagement activities and youth programming.
Last year, during a pilot of the youth violence program, the city released $60,000 to 10 organizations conducting prevention efforts. This year, with direction from city council members, the prevention work will continue but funding opportunities will majorly focus on developing intervention responses to help address the violent behaviors currently occurring. For example, $400,000 of the funding will be used for intervention services and the remaining $100,000 will be used for prevention services, Amparan said.
The city is eager to fund an organization that can provide “violence interrupters” who would conduct outreach to people directly involved in a violent crime after it has occurred, with the goal of reducing the likelihood of retaliatory behaviors.
City leaders also want to provide an intervention response program to support patients in the hospital during their recovery following a violence incident.
Another program the city hopes to fund is a specialized mental health treatment program for young people who need life skills to cope with anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges. The program would offer three forms of therapy that have proven successful for youth with high levels of antisocial behavior or histories involving significant trauma including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), moral reconation therapy (MRT) and functional family therapy (FFT). In Aurora, there is a long waitlist for those services through Children’s Hospital Colorado and the Aurora Mental Health Center, Amparan said.
Under the intervention portion of the funding, Aurora is gearing up to fund an organization that can administer a program to help strengthen families by helping adults who are struggling with their young family members at home. It would help caregivers develop the skills needed to handle difficult conversations and challenging behaviors, and it would equip them with tools to offer adequate support to their young loved ones.
The city will also likely provide money to families who don’t qualify for certain benefits, such as crime victim compensation. That money would also help people in Aurora who need immediate crisis services.
To prevent escalating violence, the city is designating funds for youth programming, such as pop-up events, safe havens, tutoring and after-school activities such as anger management training and other life-skills tutoring. Programming for the general youth population will also be available, such as public awareness campaigns.
Aurora Police Department leaders confirmed there was an increase in the number of victims who suffered from aggravated assault. In 2020, 456 people, age 25 and younger, were victims of aggravated assault. That number of victims rose by 12.7% to 514 in 2021, according to Aurora Police Department data. The number of juveniles arrested for aggravated assault with a gun rose to 11 in 2021 from eight the year before. The number of juveniles in possession of a weapon was 47 in 2020 and 2021.
The 80010 ZIP code, in northwest Aurora, had the highest share of crime and other risk factors that may lead to violence, such as trauma or child abuse, Amparan said.
Aurora Councilmember Angela Lawson is a big supporter of the Youth Violence Prevention Program. In 2020, she met with the High Risk Collaborative, composed of members from criminal justice groups, Aurora Public Schools and the Aurora Human Services Department. Members of the collaborative gave feedback about an increase in violent behavior, an increase in youth incarceration and gaps within the city. Lawson worked with the group to compile a proposal that now funds the Youth Violence Prevention Program.
Amparan said the Youth Violence Prevention Program’s criminal justice partners report a significant increase in the number of cases where a young person is charged for possessing a firearm when they are arrested for another crime, such as gang-related violence. She said APD and city leaders are working to compile other data to confirm trends identified in the community assessment survey, such as DV, human trafficking, and child abuse and sexual violence.
Nome park shooting
Six Aurora Central High School students were hospitalized after a drive-by shooting in mid-November. A 15-year-old boy was arrested soon after. Late that same month, three students were wounded in a shooting in the parking lot of a different school in Aurora. The shootings renewed a focus on gun violence and students said they’re still grappling with the impact.
Kiara A. Padilla, a sophomore at Aurora Central High School, said it seems violence has increased in Aurora in the months that followed those shootings.
She was in class in mid-November during the shooting that occurred at Nome Park, not far from Aurora Central High School. Teachers closed classroom blinds and doors, soon after, moving into a lockdown. Students hid under tables for about two hours, Padilla said. At first, students thought they were moving through a safety drill, but those thoughts changed when they heard police sirens and helicopters nearby. When students were released more than an hour after the school day was supposed to end, Padilla was picked up by her mother, who was waiting a few blocks away.
“In the moment, we really just wanted to get away from the scene,” said Padilla, a member of Aurora’s Youth Advisory Council.
About a year earlier, Padilla and her mother were victims of a separate traumatic incident. Someone set a fire at their apartment building on Galena Street in Aurora, spurring some residents to jump out of their windows to safety, according to news reports. Padilla and her mother were asleep in their first floor apartment but were woken up by a neighbor. The building was filled with smoke. One resident died and a few others were injured. The first floor remained intact, while the second floor partially burned and the third was completely destroyed. Police, who saw a suspect on security camera, have not yet found the perpetrator. But most agree, the suspect did not live in the building.
Padilla’s mother Judith said, as a parent, she lives in fear because she doesn’t know if she will receive a call one day saying her daughter is a victim of gun violence. To help put the family at ease, the Padilla’s moved from Aurora to the Montbello neighborhood in Denver in 2020, right after the apartment fire. Now, Padilla’s mother must drive her to school, which makes it harder to arrive for class on time, she said.
Padilla and other teens on the city’s youth advisory council have faced many unique challenges stemming from violence in the city and are helping inform Aurora leaders, based on those experiences, about how to best serve young people, Amparan said. As the city moves forward with addressing violent behavior, it’s important to understand the root causes, she said.
Increasing youth violence
Youth violence is increasing, not only across the state, but across the country, said Juston Cooper, deputy director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. “This is a moment in time that absolutely deserves the attention that it’s receiving and the type of attention that is receiving.
“When it comes to youth violence, the bottom line is, as a community and as leadership in the community, we’re missing the boat on what’s occurring,” he said. “Youth violence is usually a response or reaction to an outcry of a need, and it’s our responsibility to commit the adequate resources and investment to get to the bottom of what that need is.”
He offered several theories that could explain why youth violence is increasing in Aurora. Many young people were out of school for months during the COVID-19 pandemic and unable to participate in the many programs and activities they previously had engaged with. Poverty, housing shortages, job challenges and low access to other basic necessities could be driving the trend, he said, as more people are priced out of nearby Denver’s expensive housing market.
When people lack resources, they do what they need to survive and those behaviors can be criminalized, he said. People who lack housing, for example, are often criminalized for living on the streets. The opioid epidemic and a mental health crisis among teens and young adults could be significant factors in the increase in youth violence, he said.
Cooper supports city leaders’ efforts to fund the resources needed to stem youth violence but said it’s important that state leaders and policymakers continue to prioritize young people in the long term and refrain from only acting after having an acute, visceral reaction to instances of youth violence increasing.
“It’s the only time that young people become a priority,” he said. “Why isn’t that a line item in the city budget ongoingly? We get what we fund.”
He suggested investing in the public and mental health systems. A tough-on-crime stance has not worked in the past, and it won’t work today, he said.
“Aurora, for a long time, has been somewhat of a desert when it comes to youth services. But I do think that this investment is a step in the right direction,” he said. “When the dominant response to an increase in crime and violence with young people is cops, courts and cages, we’re footing the bill for that. We’ve seen decade after decade that it doesn’t work. We’ve seen that we can’t arrest our way out of the problem.” On March 2, City of Aurora leaders released an announcement with details about the new funding opportunities to reduce youth violence. Since then, more than 50 organizations have attended or registered to attend question and answer sessions, which are required for those seeking funding.