In her year as District Attorney, Elizabeth Hirz has prosecuted several high-profile teen violence cases and handled hundreds more ranging from assaults to burglaries.
"I don't want to see them in the courthouse at all," she said of local children. "I would rather see them in school and see them thriving there."
After years of work to reduce Erie's teen violence rates, the pandemic slowed -- and in some cases reversed -- that progress.
An unavoidable challenge that changed the lives of every child, especially those desperate for senses of normalcy and belonging.
"Their stability and their routine every day of going to school and being with their peers and being with individuals who cared for them and taught them and led them, they're pulled from that," Hirz said.
Now, the work of rebuilding that culture of caring begins.
Although much of the youth violence in our area happens outside of school, both the district attorney's office and the United Way say school is perhaps the best place to start addressing the causes.
"We want our kids in school because when they are in school, we know they are in a safe environment," said United Way of Erie County President Laurie Root. "So we want to get truancy numbers down, which they are going down. We want to get chronic absenteeism going down as well. We want to keep the kids in the school as long as we can."
But fully addressing teen violence, leaders say, requires participation from parents and community members.
Schools offer tools for success, but a foundation must be built at home.
"The family involvement is so important for these kids," Root said. "That sense of home, and when they have a good environment at home, when their parents or caregivers feel that the school is supportive and that they can go to the school for assistance themselves, that is when you see the change in culture."
A herculean task, but one critical to the future of the Erie area.