Urban Violence Is a National Crisis

The phrase "Happy New Year" is ringing hollow for one family I know. These people are starting 2012 the same way they ended 2011: In mourning.

In early December, Miguel Almonte, a hard-working husband and father, was murdered. He was working in his grocery story one night when he was senselessly shot and killed. This murder happened in a violence-ridden city -- Camden, New Jersey. Some might dismiss Miguel's death for what it appears to be on the surface -- the latest violent crime in a city known for bloodshed.

But it goes deeper than that.

To dismiss this murder as a "Camden thing" would be a horrible mistake. Its implications should ring a wake-up call all over the country -- even as far as the White House, where President Obama has the ability to employ measures of intervention.

We have to say "enough is enough" and mean it with all of our hearts.

We have to feel sad. Then we have to get mad because murder reflects a shameless disregard for human life. Finally, we have to act. Now, before things get any worse.

It is time to stop the violence.

Miguel's death touched me personally because all four of his children attend the LEAP Academy University Charter School, which I founded. Furthermore, Miguel was a role model parent leader at our school.

We are a public pre K-12 charter school with an early learning component. So, we are entrusted with the safety and well-being of all of our 900 students and more than 160 teachers and staff -- a pact of trust we take extremely seriously.

To succeed as an urban school, we have created a model of learning that considers the challenges of teaching students from low-income background.

Family engagement is a big component of our educational model. That's why Miguel's murder touched us the same way we would feel as if a blood relative were slain.

We believe in inspiring each and every student to respect life and to become responsible citizens. In addition, we believe in providing them with the opportunity to attend college with affordable options. We've succeeded, too; 100 percent of our students graduate and go on to college.

Providing a positive learning environment is an important ingredient in our recipe for helping students be successful. Therefore, we need to be very careful. If violence were allowed to spill over into the school, it could have a seriously detrimental effect on the culture of teaching and learning.

We have witnessed our children come to school every day with their open minds clouded by broken hearts because of the injury or death of a relative from violence.

We do what we can, such as provide counseling and support. We focus on teaching them to become engineers and scientists. And we make Camden a badge of pride; when they go to college we tell graduates to tell their peers that they come from Camden, where they received the best schooling possible.

Still, we can't overlook the sobering bottom line. Violence and crime are happening in schools in cities like Camden and other poor urban centers throughout the country.

Our families have come together to object the violence in our city. And we are asking President Obama to help.

Here's why the White House should care and call for a national intervention in multiple cities, including Camden.

Increasing the amount of police officers on the streets is a place to start -- especially in Camden, where 2010 budget cuts severely reduced our police force.

Throwing more dollars against tighter law enforcement is only one part of the solution. The community needs to play its part, too.

Organized community watches can play a key role, too. More eyes on the street is a proven-effective way to supplement police patrols.

We also have to stop looking the other way. Public, private and nonprofit entities should host dialogues to address the true causes of poverty, violence and crime. These dialogues can even be held with the White House serving as a catalyst. The issue is THAT important.

Only through sincere dialogues can we begin to effectively establish credible and effective solutions.
Education is the key to individual and collective success in the fight against violence. All citizens should support the efforts of your city's schools -- charter, public or parochial. It makes no difference.

Taking the high road is vital, too. As we condemn the violence and its perpetrators, we must show respect for each other. We cannot fight violence with violent language and anger. As teachers, parents, mentors and role models, we must be a light for our children and teach them that peace and justice will never come through violence.

Our mission is clear. We will not tolerate crime and violence.

At the same time, our message must be unified and uplifting. Solutions to the ills of Camden and cities like it are attainable -- but only if we work together. We must reaffirm our faith in each other, and solve our problems collectively.

A violence-free community is a civil right of every child and family. Lets hope for a new year free of violence.

It is too late to bring back Miguel Almonte. But it is not too early to start ensuring that another urban family will not end the next new year the same way the Almontes are ending 2011.