By Mike Hixenbaugh
LUMBERTON — Tough doesn’t always cut it here. Not in this sprawling county, where the murder rate is four times the national average and young people are twice as likely as teens in other parts of the state to die before they’re old enough to vote.
These are the grim facts of life in Robeson County, and this husky 17-year-old boy knows it, he says, even if he’s never heard the official government statistics. His friends call him Jim Bob, and he’d deck any fool dumb enough to call him James.
He’s just one of thousands of teenagers who call Robeson County home, but his experiences growing up in one of the nation’s most violent rural communities are experiences shared by many of his peers.
The boy was walking home last month along a sleepy Lumberton street where, only weeks earlier, police had responded to an afternoon gunfight outside a neighborhood grocery store. Jim Bob didn’t know the guy injured in the shooting, he said, but one of his friends did. The teen shrugged off his not-so-distant connection to the incident.
“That’s just how it is,” he said. “That’s Robeson County.”
The legacy of violence in this rural swath of farm and swampland has been well documented over the years. And despite efforts to provide teens and adults with healthy alternatives for resolving conflicts – despite progress in lowering the crime rate over the past 20 years – Robeson County remains, statistically, one of the state’s most dangerous places.
Now, researchers want to know why. Why does violence persist here? More specifically, the researchers say, they want to figure out how to fix it.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was recently awarded a $6.5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to open the nation’s first rurally focused youth violence prevention research center. It will be based in Lumberton, and its mission will span the county.
The grant does not cover any brick and mortar – the center is likely to be based out of a few county offices and at a local nonprofit organization – but the money will pay the cost of additional social workers to implement test programs.
The CDC has launched similar programs in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago, but never one in a place like Robeson County, with its population of 130,000 people spread across 950 square miles.
Lead researcher Paul Smokowski, a professor in the School of Social Work at UNC-Chapel Hill, said he chose Robeson County for the grant application after comparing its crime rate with cities across the state and region. He was floored by the results, he said.
“What I found was, Robeson County is having a lot of big-city problems in a rural setting,” Smokowski said. “Nationally, there aren’t a lot of places like this.”
The county is regarded as one of the country’s most ethnically diverse rural communities – another point of interest, Smokowski said. More than 68 percent of its residents are American Indian, black or Hispanic.
The county is consistently ranked as one of the state’s poorest. More than 30 percent of its residents live below the poverty line.
The goal of the five-year research project – which is focused primarily on middle school students – is to determine the root of violent behavior in the community and to try out programs to combat it.
Mac Legerton, a partner in the study, hopes the project will be the next in a long line of efforts to turn the tide on violence in Robeson County. Much has changed in the 30 or so years since Legerton settled down here and opened the Center for Community Action, a nonprofit group dedicated to combating violence and poverty.
“Most people think this project is happening because of the need, but it’s really not entirely true,” Legerton said. “If we didn’t have a vision and a plan in place, then you wouldn’t be able to do the project. We’ve made great strides over the years, we have systems in place, and that’s why they chose us.”
This isn’t the same Robeson County that caught national headlines in the late 1980s as it teetered on the verge of racial warfare, Legerton said. Progress has been made in mending racial divides since then, he said, even if conflicts still arise from time to time.
And it isn’t the same Robeson County depicted as “hell’s backyard” by a national magazine after the roadside murder of Michael Jordan’s father, James Jordan, in 1993. Good people call Robeson County home, Legerton said, regardless of the crime rate.
But the county still has its problems.
James Hunt can attest to that. The former Fairmont Middle School principal was shot in the face in April 2009 during his morning commute to work. The case remains unsolved, but Hunt believes the shooting was retaliation for his efforts to push gangs out of the school.
Many of his students were learning more about picking fights than solving math problems, Hunt said, and he was working to change that.
Even after more than a dozen surgeries, the scars from the shooting remain fresh on Hunt’s face – making him a living, breathing monument, he said, to the legacy of violence in the county where he was born and raised.
“I’ve always said, Santa Claus, he flies over Robeson County,” Hunt said. “He knows better, because this is a dangerous county, and it’s inherent for a lot of these kids. When you’re born in Robeson County, for a lot of people, you have to fight to survive. It shouldn’t be that way, and we’ve got to find a way to change that.”
Robeson County’s youth death rate – 124 per 100,000 – was nearly twice the state average between 2004 and 2008, according to the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The county’s homicide rate of 24 per 100,000 over that period was more than triple the state’s average.
Researchers will spend the first year of the project drawing on the community – talking to teens like Jim Bob and his parents, school teachers, social workers and the like – to figure out why violent behavior is rampant across the county. Social workers and researchers will then begin working with the school system, the county health department and community groups to implement programs to address the problem, Smokowski said.
“It’s not just studying the problem,” he said. “The whole project is focused on bringing new programs into the county and testing them to see if we can reduce the problem.”
The researchers will be pulling from a library of programs proven to reduce violence in other places across the country. Few if any of those programs, though, have been implemented in a place like Robeson County, Smokowski said.
“The key will be modeling the programs to work in a rural setting,” he said.
To assess the effects of the center’s activities, Smokowski said, researchers will track community and school rates of violence in Robeson County and across the state over a five-year period.
The project also will follow 3,000 middle school students – about half of all middle school youth in the county – over the five years to compare their development with that of similar students in a nearby county.
By focusing on middle school students, Smokowski said, the project can potentially help young people before problems become entrenched.
That’s a worthy goal, Legerton said. And it’s one his organization has been working toward for years. He’s hoping the project will help reduce the crime rate, he said, but until the community’s mind-set is reformed, no infusion of federal money will end violence in Robeson County.
Not if too many teens such as Jim Bob are left to develop their own sense of morality, void of any father figure or other positive role models. Jim Bob didn’t mind growing up away from his dad, he said. He always had people to take care of him.
It has been more than five years since the teen’s older cousin taught him how to throw a punch, he said. The lessons came after a few middle school classmates had teased him about his weight.
“He told me you have to be ready to swing,” the teen said. “That’s how it works.”
Because, for many, that’s how conflict is handled in Robeson County. Swing first, ask questions later.
“Beyond this project, we have to address the culture of violence in this county,” Legerton said. “Young people need to see that it won’t get them what they really want and that it’s not acceptable. But right now, in this community, it is acceptable, and we have to change that.”