In violent Robeson County, leaders seek hope through children

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comSeptember 14, 2013 

  • Robeson County, by the numbers

    134,168 Population (2010)13.3% Unemployment rate (July 2013)

    31% Residents living in poverty (2007-2011)

    809.5 Rate of violent crimes per 100,000 residents (2012)

    Sources: U.S. Census, N.C. Division of Employment Security, N.C. Department of Justice

  • Robeson County by the numbers

    134,168 Population (2010) 

    13.3% Unemployment rate (July 2013)

    31% Residents living in poverty (2007-2011)

    809.5 Rate of violent crimes per 100,000 residents (2012)

    Sources: U.S. Census, N.C. Division of Employment Security, N.C. Department of Justice

— Once again, the most dangerous place in North Carolina is a rural county with a long history of violence.

Robeson County, where Interstate 95 crosses the state line into South Carolina, had the highest violent crime rate in the state last year, with 809.5 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, according to numbers released last week by the N.C. Department of Justice. That’s 22 percent higher than the violent crime rate in Durham County and more than three times the rate in Wake.

While the murder rate has dropped in recent years, the violent crime rate has stayed extremely high. Donnie Douglas, longtime editor of The Robesonian newspaper in Lumberton, said more work is needed to deter crime in the county.

“There are a lot of poor, uneducated people here. A lot of guns, a lot of drugs, a lot of alcohol and a culture that says ‘This is how we solve problems,’ ” Douglas said. “I think if we put a National Guardsman on every corner, that’s not an overreaction.”

Jim Barbee knows about Robeson’s violent crime. That’s why he’s here. But he’s trying a different approach.

Barbee is in charge of a program operated in Robeson County by The N.C. Rural Academic Center for Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention at UNC-Chapel Hill. The center, known as ACE, got a $6.5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control, which had chosen Robeson as one of five places in the country to try to reduce epidemic violence.

The five-year project centers on reaching children in middle school and has started a juvenile “teen court” for minor offenders. It will track the outcomes for more than 9,000 children.

“At the end of the day, what we are trying to do is determine if the programs we’re implementing will make an impact on violence in Robeson County,” Barbee said. “We will track each child for five years. What we are doing is not a survey, it’s a very large, countywide assessment.”

It can’t come soon enough for James Carmical, the county’s chief district court judge, who says the high rate of violence has a negative effect on the quality of life for the entire region and hampers the recruiting of businesses and even teachers to the area.

“One of the most universal things for any family is knowing that they are living in a safe place,” Carmical said.

Tony Paylor, co-owner of Platinum Cuts barber shop in downtown Lumberton, says the violence has had a bad effect on his business.

“So many guys whose hair I used to cut are either dead or locked up,” said Paylor, 43. “Now their sons are the ones getting into trouble because they don’t have fathers.”

On his way to work that day, Paylor saw a group of young men standing in front of a notorious drug-dealing spot known as “VPoint” on N.C. 41, the long strip of highway in Lumberton, dotted with convenience stores and public housing areas, that is a focal point for crime.

“I told them every person who had ever stood at the VPoint were dead or in jail,” he said. “I asked them were they next in line.”

Why Robeson?

Robeson County, with a population of about 135,000, is the poorest county in North Carolina, with 31 percent of the population living in poverty. The unemployment rate tops 13 percent.

The county is nearly evenly divided among American Indians, African Americans and whites, and it has an emerging Hispanic population. Historically, it’s been a violent mix.

In 1958, about 150 members of the United Klans of America arrived in Maxton armed with shotguns to protest rumors of a Lumbee Indian living with a white woman. The KKK did not count on a turnout of hundreds of Lumbees who were also armed. Gunshots in the air from the Lumbees scattered the Klansmen, who took off running, an incident that made national headlines.

More violence exploded in the 1980s when cocaine arriving off Interstate 95 by drug traffickers going between Miami and New York poured into the area. Robeson County’s murder rate during that period was twice the state average and, as a consequence of the drug trade and violence, the region became known as “Little Miami.”

For years, rumors of official corruption dogged local officeholders; by the late 1980s, drugs and violence had resulted in 20 unsolved murders of Lumbee Indians and African-Americans. Two armed men, Eddie Hatcher and Timothy Jacobs, walked into the offices of The Robesonian and held nearly 20 employees hostage for 10 hours, demanding to speak to Gov. Jim Martin and claiming to have evidence of law enforcement officials involved in drug trafficking.

By 2002, the talk of corruption became real. Former sheriff Glenn Maynor requested an investigation after two deputies in the department’s drug unit were charged with misconduct. A probe by the State Bureau of Investigation, “Operation Tarnished Badge,” followed, resulting in 22 deputies hauled into court on charges of kidnapping, money laundering, racketeering, distribution of cocaine, theft of federal funds and satellite TV piracy.

By 2006, 16 deputies were charged in the investigation and all pleaded guilty. Maynor stood before a federal judge as the last defendant in 2008 when he was sentenced to six years in prison for misusing federal funds and lying to a grand jury.

The local courts deal with enough murder cases that, six years ago, the district attorney’s office set up a “murder docket” that’s separate from the regular schedule of Superior Court cases. Since then, the number of murders has dropped, from 30 in 2006 to 13 last year, but District Attorney Luther Johnson Britt says the separate docket still helps.

“It was something I created as a means to schedule murder trials in advance so that my office could properly prepare,” Britt said.

Starting in middle school

In Robeson County, the cycle of crime and violence starts with the young. The county consistently ranks first in juvenile arrest rates in North Carolina and has a youth death rate nearly double the state’s average.

The ACE program hopes to reach children before they turn to crime or become a victim.

In June, about 3,000 middle schoolers graduated from a program that used a weekly curriculum to teach them the benefits of positive behavior. The program was adopted by UNC-Chapel Hill researchers for Robeson County because it was shown to have an impact in the lives of middle schoolers throughout the country.

“Why middle school? Because it’s middle school,” said Dr. Martica Bacallao, a UNC-Chapel Hill researcher and co-director of the program. “High school is where you see the problems. What you want to do is catch them before that age. It’s much more cost effective and cost efficient.”

The federal funding from the Centers for Disease Control awarded to ACE covers a five-year period that will end in 2015. The first year was devoted to planning and research. The following three years consist of implementing violence prevention programs; the final year will be devoted to an evaluation of the project. Leaders say they hope to get more funding to continue tracking the children until they leave high school.

The center hopes to bring the violent crime rate and juvenile arrests down to the level of neighboring Columbus County, said Paul Smokowski, associate professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work and the ACE project’s lead researcher.

“We would like to see youth report less aggressive behavior, bullying, and violence,” said Smokowski.

Middle school students get their first taste in a program called “Positive Action.” For 40 minutes each week, the students participate in a program based on the philosophy that you feel good about yourself when you take positive actions.

“When a child does something positive, that child feels better with himself,” Bacallao said. “When they feel better, they think, ‘How do I increase this feeling?’ ” She said the program teaches that “when you don’t do your homework, you’re disrespecting yourself, intellectually.”

Another initiative, “Parenting Wisely,” is a five-week program that teaches parenting skills.

“If there is less conflict between a parent and adolescent and increased communication, there is a reduced chance of youth committing violence outside the home,” Bacallao said.

‘Do right in school’

Among the project staff members and court officials, teen court is known as the “shining star” of the ACE project.

On a recent Friday in late August, just before Labor Day, six young people drifted into the offices of the Juvenile Justice Center in downtown Lumberton for a workshop called “Makin’ Good Decisions.” The youngsters, one in high school and the rest middle schoolers, were required to attend the workshop after their run-ins with the law were heard in teen court rather than the usual hearings in juvenile court.

James Parker, a graduate student at the UNC-Pembroke School of Social Work who volunteers with the teen court program, said the purpose of the workshop was to help give the youngsters tools they could use to avoid getting into trouble, such as drugs, peer pressure and bullying. He also spelled out the “three Cs” that they should remember when confronted with difficult situations: choices, challenges and consequences.

The six children – an African-American girl and boy, two Native American boys and two Native American girls – sat together at a table.

“Anybody ready for the holiday weekend?” Parker asked. No one answered.

Parker tried again. “No one? Anyone going to the beach?”

One girl slowly raised her hand. Parker tried a different question.

“Anybody excited about school” next week? he asked.

No answer.

“Now look,” Parker said. “I know you all are not shy. So let’s get this over with really quick. I know you been in school all day, so I don’t want to give you a lot of worksheets. I need communication. Feedback.”

The children didn’t say a word.

They were quiet until he reminded them that if they did not communicate, then they would have to complete worksheets. Moreover, if the worksheets were not properly completed, the children would have to return to another workshop session. That brought a series of groans from the little group – and the feedback Parker was seeking.

“What is making good decisions?” Parker asked.

A sixth-grade boy, who admitted to smoking marijuana and being kicked out of school last year after a teacher found a BB gun in his backpack, said: “Do right in school.”

Two other youngsters offered similar opinions. The discussion shifted to bad habits that could prevent them from reaching their goals, such as smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol.

“My sister be stinking” after smoking, the sixth-grade boy said. “Marijuana. That’s what I smoke. I started smoking when I was about nine.”

“You telling on yourself,” one of the girls said to him.

“That was last year,” the cheerful little fellow replied. “I ain’t smoked in about a month now.”

So far, about 220 young people who have had minor, misdemeanor skirmishes with the law have been referred to teen court by school resource officers, judges, attorneys, the county district attorney’s office and the health department. The cases typically consist of runaways, minor assaults and vandalism.

Lance Britt, the county’s chief juvenile court counselor, says a big reason for teen court’s effectiveness is that young people who were once defendants are now participating in the program by acting as volunteer bailiffs, defense attorneys, prosecutors and members of the jury.

“They’re really staying busy,” Britt said.

Carmical, the chief district court judge, applauds the project, but he thinks it’s too early to determine if it has had an impact. He says that the program needs to show that it has had some effect on a wide range of young people.

“You have to be able to track that over a number of years. It’s still early in the process,” he said. “You have to be realistic, but I think it’s work worth doing so we can find out. This is the first time where we are not just responding to violence but trying to do something to get ahead of the curve.”

McDonald: 919-829-4533

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