Creating Freedom from Violence

Creating Freedom from Violence

By John Schlitt, President

Enough is enough. Never again. Now is the time. It seems unimaginable, but the national gun violence prevention movement, fueled by unthinkable acts and media-savvy youth activists, may have finally reached a tipping point in our public discourse. Inspired by the righteous indignation of young people who refuse to accept violence as a norm, advocates are emboldened to demand commonsense solutions from their elected policymakers to end the violence visited upon our children.

The gun violence experienced in the communities of Parkland, Newtown, and Littleton is horrific and extreme. And extraordinarily rare. But the apparent randomness and brutality of mass shootings in schools shakes us to the core. Our schools should be sanctuaries for children to thrive – not fear for their lives. We never thought it could happen here. Violence lives in other communities. We aren’t exempt.

Like most policy debates about human behavior, answers will not come easily. And it’s tempting to fixate on the rarest, most extreme cases, to relieve the symptoms of the disease, rather than to fully understand its root causes.

Some communities, while raising their voices in solidarity with the gun violence movement, have a legitimate grievance about the narrative being played out in the media. Where’s the attention on the violence, fear, anxiety, and trauma, the lived experiences that are all too familiar and routine – particularly for young people of color and especially young males of color? Why are their experiences any less unconscionable, less actionable?

As a compassionate society, we should not tolerate any threat to the wellbeing of young people – no matter its lethality. Harm comes in many forms. Bullets, yes. But so too: abuse, assault, neglect, apathy, disrespect, discrimination, intolerance, and bigotry. The effects of these assaults on children’s health and wellbeing are corrosive and long-lasting. The scale is unfathomable. Consider:

  • 63,000 children were victims of sexual abuse in 2013. One child every six minutes.
  • One-third of children have been physically assaulted within the past year; about half will have been assaulted in their lifetime.
  • One in four children witness an act of violence in their home, school, or community; 5% will witness gun violence this year.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for children and adolescents.
  • Twenty-eight percent of students in grades 6-12 say they have been bullied at school.
  • 7 million children have a parent in jail or prison – a known adverse childhood experience with devastating developmental consequences.

Rather than pushing for quick-fix solutions that may have no effect on the underlying causes of violence (think armed officers at the school building door), it‘s time we took the long view and imagined something better for our children. What does freedom from violence look like? It’s not hard to envision the structural conditions that help immunize young people from violence.

We don’t have to stretch our imaginations too far. We have the tools and knowledge. Leading trauma authorities and advocates like Nadine Burke-Harris and Jeff Duncan-Andrade speak passionately to the role of sustained trauma and toxic stress that, when unchecked and unattended to, result in the very worst outcomes for children and adolescents. There is now a groundswell of proponents across the health, education, philanthropic, and civil rights sectors advancing the concept of schools as community-builders that strengthen adult-student relationships, ensure emotional and physical safety, and foster a sense of connectedness. Here are three models transforming the educational experience and making safety, respect, and empathy practiced core values.

Restorative justice – a significant re-thinking of discipline practices – is taking hold in schools across the country. The approach is grounded in group identity and community cohesion: acts that do harm to one member do harm to the entire community. Students are empowered as equal stakeholders in the administration of justice. Highly structured practices, such as mediation conferences, peer courts, and healing circles, are inclusive and cooperative rather than hierarchical and punitive. Participants are not seen as offenders and victims. The goals of this model are to repair the harm, restore the rupture, and hold each other accountable.

Trauma-informed schools take their cues from neuroscience, which shows that relentless exposure to traumatic events in childhood can lead to maladaptive circuitry in the brain. Problems with social, emotional, and cognitive functioning are not uncommon among children who experience toxic levels of stress. Educators are trained to recalibrate their classroom management style with sensitivity toward underlying causes of students’ behavior. Rather than react to explosive outbursts with disciplinary infractions, school staff instead strive to defuse the situation by getting to the meaning behind the behavior – repairing the harm caused by the complex trauma that interferes with learning and giving students the skills to manage their stress and make positive choices. In trauma-informed parlance, “What’s wrong with you?” becomes “What happened to you?” It opens new insights into the “why” rather than the “what”.

In the same vein, many schools are embracing the idea that social and emotional skills and behaviors can be taught. In fact, social and emotional learning objectives are getting equal time with reading, writing, and arithmetic to help socialize young people and create safe and supportive academic environments. Instruction – whether organized as a distinct course or integrated into the academic curriculum – focuses on mastering skills like self-reflection, social awareness, self-management, nonviolent conflict resolution, and responsible decision-making. Evaluators have found marked improvements in mental health, social skills, and academic achievement.

This extraordinary, catalytic gun violence movement would do well to focus its potent political will on mobilizing communities to work in cross-sector partnerships to create the conditions in our schools that foster safety, healing, security, connectedness, respect, equity, and agency. We shouldn’t accept any less for our children than freedom from ALL violence. Only then will we interrupt the cycle of harm.


Resources

National Center for Safe and Supportive Learning

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning

Restorative Justice Resources for Schools


United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. Child Maltreatment Survey, 2013 (2014).

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