Anti-violence grants approved by Baker, lawmakers

Grants aimed at preventing gun violence and targeted at youth and young adults in areas with the state’s highest crime rates will be awarded to community organizations through a pilot program created in a law Gov. Charlie Baker signed last week.

The House Ways and Means Committee added the measure — a version of which a group of 41 lawmakers had requested in July — into a spending bill Baker filed that also included money and language aimed at protecting students from school shootings.

In a July 27 letter to House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Ways and Means Chair Jeffrey Sanchez, Rep. Andy Vargas said Baker’s proposed investments in school counselors, marketing campaigns and school security technology were “worthy and vital” but said that “schools cannot solve this problem alone and that, statistically, most kids that pull the trigger are not found in schools.”

Signed by Vargas and 40 other representatives including Republican Reps. Lenny Mirra and Shaunna O’Connell and independent Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose, the letter asks for $20 million to create a Gun Violence Prevention Trust Fund that would “support a four-year grant exclusively to community-based organizations addressing youth violence via a public health approach.”

The $540 million bill Baker signed Oct. 23 dedicates $7.5 million to grants for security-related infrastructure upgrades at K-12 public schools, another $7.5 million in grants for schools to hire additional mental and behavioral health specialists, and $10 million for a new gun- and violent crime-prevention grant program within the Department of Public Health, focused on out-of-school youth and young adults aged 17 to 24 in neighborhoods and municipalities with the state’s highest rates of violent crime.

“We know communities have been reeling from gun violence long before national school shootings were catching the nation’s attention,” Vargas, a Haverhill Democrat, said in a statement. “I am proud that the legislature can continue to lead with a holistic approach to reducing gun violence by focusing efforts both inside and outside of the classroom.”

According to the law, the funds can be used for expenses including “mental health counselors, academic supports and other research-based practices and related support services.”

The public health department will need to report to lawmakers on the program’s effectiveness by Sept. 1, 2019.

Geoff Foster, policy director for the Lowell-based organization UTEC, called the pilot program “a great step forward,” saying it “prioritizes an innovative approach delivering much-needed mental health services for young adults in communities with highest crime rates.”

Vargas’ office said the funding will be the first of its kind to go directly to the Department of Public Health to specifically address gun violence prevention with young adults. The department will be charged with issuing competitive grants to community-based organizations, in consultation with public safety and education officials, with priority given to groups that partner with neighborhood health and human services agencies and have “demonstrated street outreach capacity.”

According to the Massachusetts Black and Latino Caucus, which tapped the program as one of its priorities, 752 young people died from gun violence from 2005 to 2015 in Massachusetts.