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Robinson lays out public safety plans after Dems reject commission to study crime
Indianapolis City-County Council member Leroy Robinson laid out public safety plans that include new proposals, policy changes and improving communication over the next year.

Robinson told the Recorder of his plans about a week after Democrats on the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee rejected a Republican-backed proposal that would have created a commission to study violent crime and its disparate impact on African Americans.

Robinson, a Democrat who represents District 1, is the chairman of that committee.

PROPOSALS

Robinson will introduce three proposals as early as the next committee meeting Feb. 26, which will be at 5:30 p.m. at the Fay Biccard Glick Neighborhood Center, 2990 W. 71st St. Robinson said Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears and Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) Chief Randal Taylor will be there.

One proposal would create a "super-utilizer data system," which would show exactly which people are using the criminal justice system — courts, jail, arrests, etc. — at a high rate. Robinson said it's difficult to know who those people, known as super-utilizers, are right now.

"Once we do that," he said, "we can get that person some help and some assistance on how to stay out of the system."

A second proposal would amend the focus of the Community Crime Prevention Grant Program, which the council allocates funds annually. Robinson said the $3 million awarded to organizations will be used for violence reduction instead and will address issues such as trauma associated with violent crime.

A third proposal would create a juvenile justice task force to focus on reforms specific to juveniles.

SPECIALIZED SAFETY PLANS

Robinson said each council member will work with criminal justice agencies to create a public safety plan specific to their district, since a blanket plan may work for some districts but not others.

Robinson said each district would get the same amount of money, regardless of how much crime and violence actually happens in each district, but added the proposal could be changed to make it so districts that need more resources would get more money.

He declined to say how much money would be dedicated to these plans.

GETTING MORE FEEDBACK

There will be a bigger focus on hearing from "experts" in criminal justice, including those in the community who have been impacted by violence, according to Robinson.

Officials from agencies such as IMPD and the prosecutor's office have been asked to pull data relevant to disparities in criminal justice and figure out what policies they can enact to "balance things out," Robinson said.

Robinson said the committee will work with criminal justice agencies to hold all-day events around the city, where there will be resources for people who need help getting their driver's license reinstated and getting their criminal record expunged.

Robinson said there will be more details about those events at the Feb. 26 committee meeting.

The Marion County Criminal Justice Planning Council — which is supposed to study and make recommendations regarding law enforcement and criminal justice — has monthly public meetings and will also have "experts" come talk to members about how to reform the criminal justice system, Robinson said.

Marion County Clerk Myla Eldridge, who heads the planning council, joined the mayor's office, sheriff's office and prosecutor's office in showing support for the public safety plans.

Robinson had released statements that included some of the plans, but not everything was known.

"We're moving forward," he said in the interview. "We have an agenda. ... This is not just a council-led initiative. This is something that involves all stakeholders that are interested in reducing violent crime."

The plans are the result of a years-long effort on the part of councilors to better understand how criminal justice reform should look.

That included feedback from the Criminal Justice Reform Task Force and meetings with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, which took place up to December 2019.

The Republican-backed proposal Democrats turned down at the committee meeting would have established a commission to review the status of the city's short- and long-term response to violent crime, recommend proposals and gather information to recommend policy changes.

The proposal failed, 8-3, along party lines.

Republicans, along with the Indianapolis Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and two Democratic councilors, announced a new "citizendriven group" that will bring together residents, stakeholders and neighborhood associations to figure out solutions to violent crime.

These developments coincide with a quadruple homicide that happened Feb. 5 shortly after the committee meeting.

Democrats' main rebuttal to Republicans at the committee meeting was that it's time for action, but that sparked criticism because the public didn't know what that action would be.

Robinson said the plans he's laid out is the action.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.


Marion County schools test positive for lead

Fifty-four percent of 295 schools — both public and private — in Marion County tested positive for lead in water supplies. The schools were included in a study by the Marion County Public Health Department, which began in 2017. Schools with contaminated water sources were notified in 2018.

In many cases, however, parents and guardians were not informed of the issue until the study was made public in January 2020.

The Metropolitan School District (MSD) of Warren Township had the highest lead concentration among local public schools, according to an internal health department report, which was obtained and published by the Indianapolis Star earlier this year. The district had more than 50 water sources throughout the township surpass lead levels deemed acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The MSD of Warren Township — along with several school districts in the county — waited until the study was released publicly before informing parents of the problem. Dennis Jarret, director of media and community relations for the district, declined to make school officials available to discuss the issue, instead forwarding a statement from the township, which was released when the study became public:

"In 2016-17, the Marion County Health Department offered all Marion County school districts free voluntary water testing in their schools," the statement reads. "MSD Warren Township accepted this opportunity to test water samples in all of our schools. After the initial water sample testing results were provided to the district, 56 faucets/fixtures were replaced. A full report was published by the

Marion County Health Department acknowledging that the identified areas of concern had been addressed and that all of the faucets/fixtures in our schools were in compliance with EPA standards at the time of the second testing."

Other school districts with high lead levels include the Metropolitan School Districts of Lawrence, Pike and Wayne.

Mary Lang, a chief of communications for Wayne Township schools, said 23 faulty water sources were replaced within two weeks, but no mass communication was shared with families.

Officials from Lawrence Township schools confirmed that every contaminated water source in the district was repaired. Director of Communications Dana Altemeyer declined to explain why the school administration failed to inform parents of the contamination sooner.

While the faulty water sources throughout Marion County schools have been repaired or disassembled, the short- and long-term impact on students has yet to be determined.

Karla Johnson, an administrator for the Marion County Public Health Department and leader of the study, said this was the first comprehensive test of water in Marion County schools, and as a result, there is no way of knowing how many children were exposed to lead at school.

The short-term effects of lead exposure include a lower IQ and difficulty with attention and learning, as well as long-term effects such as high blood pressure, kidney disease, reduced fertility and possibly cancer after prolonged exposure.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children younger than 7 are most susceptible to lead poisoning, and African American children are more likely to have high exposure to lead due to risk factors such as poverty.

Despite the developmental and health impacts lead exposure can have on children, Johnson seemed to downplay the findings of the study.

"People should keep the water report in perspective," Johnson said. "Schools were extremely cooperative and were as concerned as any parent. ... Children are more likely to be exposed [to lead] at home, because that's where they spend most of their time."

The United States Department of Health and Human Services estimates American children spend more than seven hours a day in school, factoring in after school activities. This adds up to more than 35 hours a week children risk being exposed to lead-contaminated water. In addition, contaminated water causes up to 20% of lead poisoning cases in the United States, according to the EPA. Because of the long hours spent at school and the risk of exposure, some lawmakers believe schools should take more responsibility for tracking lead levels and students who have lead poisoning.

State Sen. Jean Breaux of District 34 proposed Senate Bill 286, which would require schools to test any child enrolling for lead poisoning, and continuously monitor students who test positive.

"Lead is a problem in multiple Hoosier cities, and we know that children in low-income, minority communities around the state are more susceptible to lead poisoning," Breaux said in a statement. " ... Hoosier kids should have the right to a safe environment at home and in their schools. ... Our state has the opportunity to pursue impactful public health policies to reduce these racial inequalities in our children's health. My proposal, Senate Bill 286, aims to provide transparency and make sure parents know if their children have high amounts of lead in their blood."

SB 286 did not receive a hearing in the Senate before the deadline to advance it to the Indiana House of Representatives, effectively killing the bill this session.

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.


Grassroots effort to fight food insecurity

Using old Nuvo newspaper racks, 24-year-old Sierra Nuckols has been creating food pantries, known as the Community Food Box Project, for communities struggling with food insecurity throughout Indiana for the past three years.

After studying apartheid in South Africa as a student in the Desmond Tutu Center Youth Fellows program, Nuckols returned to Indianapolis with a new perspective on food insecurity, or as she called it, "food apartheid." Nuckols prefers this term to "food desert," because she said the former forces people to look at the historic and social reasons food insecurity exists.

"If you look at the problem as a food apartheid and look at the systematic reasons why food insecurity and food deserts exist in the first place," Nuckols said, "it's clear that the issue is a social justice issue."

African Americans are more likely to live in an area with food insecurity than any other demographic, with poverty be

ing the main cause of food insecurity.

"Grocery stores and corporations can look at a map and know where they wouldn't make money, and they won't take their businesses there," Nuckols said. "It creates this kind of segregation of food and resources."

The idea for the pantries came from the "Little Free Libraries" that are scattered throughout the city, offering free books for people, often in exchange for one they leave behind. After hearing about a movement in Arkansas to create food pantries in a similar fashion, Nuckols decided to create food boxes in Indiana.

After Nuvo ceased printing in March of 2019, Nuckols worked with the news outlet to refurbish its newspaper boxes into pantries, often having children and prisoners help paint them.

"The boxes are put in areas with food insecurity, and then the community and partnered organizations donates food to the boxes," Nuckols said. "It's the responsibility of the organizations to keep the boxes filled when the community can't."

The pantries are always in need of non-perishable food items, canned food, diapers, hygiene products and ready-to-eat foods.

"The boxes don't tackle the food desert issue," Nuckols said, "but it does tackle the issue of immediate and emergency food needs."

Among the partnered organizations are IPS School #87, Amber Woods Apartments and the Martin Luther King Community Center and the Indianapolis Recorder.

Recorder staff member and president of the Indianapolis Chapter of Indiana Black Expo (ICIBE) Jeana Ouattara has taken up the cause, getting the Indianapolis Recorder and ICIBE involved. She hopes more long-term solutions to food insecurity come from the effort.

"This is just a Band-Aid," Ouattara said. "This problem can't wait. People need to eat everyday. I used to work in education, and some kids only eat when they're at school. Knowing there is a box with noodles in it or green beans for your kids helps to get by."

Three years into the project, Nuck Nuckols has found the conversations started because of the food boxes to be the most impactful aspect of the project.

"You can think about how people are hungry," Nuckols, who has never dealt with food insecurity, said. "But you don't really know what it's like unless you go through it. The learning experience of talking to people that are actually hungry and how much it affects them in their daily lives. ... That's what sticks with me the most."

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

Drop by and donate!

Community Food Boxes are located at the following locations:

IPS School #87: 2411 Indianapolis Ave.

Ivy Tech Community College: 26th Street and Capitol Avenue

Amber Woods Apartments: 10119 John Marshall Drive

Martin Luther King Community Center: 40 W. 40th St.

Indianapolis Recorder: 2901 N. Tacoma Ave.

To create your own food box, reach out to the Community Food Box Project on Facebook, facebook.com/communityfoodboxproject