Violence Prevention Efforts Hit Close to Home for Me and My Students

I — like many Americans — have been engaging in a daily routine of relief every afternoon that the news does not report another school shooting.

But the violence in low-income, urban areas where I’ve lived and worked are also on my mind. I was a teacher in South Central Los Angeles, where my students risked their safety simply by walking to school. I’m from Chicago, a city notorious worldwide for its rate of violent crime (when I lived in London and mentioned I’m from Chicago, a typical response was, “Isn’t that the murder capital of America?”). And a prior student from St. Louis, Reh’yen — a black, male teenager, one of my all-time favorite students — was shot and killed a few months ago, an incident I am still grappling with.

“Violence in Chicago: Realities + Root Causes” panel brought young civic leaders and Cook County State’s Attorney @SAKimFoxx to the stage to share personal stories and real solutions. #ABetterChicago – at Venue SIX10

Panel photo via @_abetterchicago on Twitter

And yet, data presented at a recent conference — A Better Chicago’s annual Education Summit — was still shocking to me: In a survey of six hundred African American students in Chicago, one third reported seeing a dead body not related to a funeral. How can we possibly expect kids to focus (let alone flourish) in school when this kind of violence is an inescapable reality? And how can we accept that there is only 1 social worker per 1,200 students in Chicago Public Schools?

Weeks later I continue to be taken aback by the raw, simple, and necessary words of the panelists who spoke on the topic of violence at the Summit.

One of them was Kim Foxx, the first African American woman to manage the Cook County State’s Attorney Office (the second largest prosecutor’s office in the country) and a graduate of Chicago Public Schools. Kim emphasized the need for a collaborative approach to reducing violence, including her office working with the school district (“the constellation of events that lead to violence requires an all-hands-on-deck approach”). My colleagues Kelly Robson and Hailly Korman agree: In their recent publication Continuity Counts, they argue that continuity of people and continuity of information are two key levers for enabling the education system to effectively support children who have experienced trauma.

The other panelists were high school students Aprilis Dyson of Epic Academy and D’Angelo McDade of North Lawndale College Prep. When asked what would help reduce violence in their communities, D’Angelo — a gunshot survivor and activist who spoke to over a million people at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington D.C. —  mentioned better-resourced schools and job opportunities to keep youth off the streets. I’m not an expert on crime, but this seems like a sensible, “no regrets” move. Aprilis specifically mentioned the need for more resources like SHE Chicago, an afterschool program that teaches character education to high school women: “We need organizations that can teach character…before we’re race, we’re a gender. Before we’re a gender, we are humans. So we should treat humans like humans.” 

I loved that response: if we want to stop violence, we should remind each other that we’re all humans and we should treat each other that way. While serving as Assistant Principal at a middle school in St. Louis a few years ago, my colleagues and I piloted a character education program, part of which attempted to teach self-management of emotions and social intelligence (e.g., basic non-cognitive skills such as identifying emotions, pausing and deep-breathing when angry, and a conflict mediation protocol). The early results I saw there — including students’ willingness to use words instead of violence — made a believer out of me, even if the strategies were just one piece of a necessary patchwork of solutions.

Emotional self-control, social intelligence, and empathy — these are difficult things to teach both kids and adults (and frankly, they are skills I continue to work on myself). But what I’ve experienced is that although students may enter school with certain default behaviors when instigated (including physical violence), giving them tools to replace those behaviors can help them effectively manage their emotions and set them up to build and maintain healthy relationships throughout life. Luckily, lots of organizations, including Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab, help schools teach students non-cognitive skills like these. If this sort of thing takes off in the American school system, I’m betting it means huge gains towards violence prevention.

The A Better Chicago panel ended with Kim reminding the audience how easy it is to go home and do nothing about the problem at hand, given that most of the audience wasn’t going home to the low-income neighborhoods where D’Angelo and Aprilis live. She added, “This is not charity. This is for your benefit. This is for all of us. We need to own that D’Angelo’s future is tied to ours.”

So my future is tied to that of Aprilis and D’Angelo and Reh’yen. We better get to work.