by Loredana Valtierra
Gun violence has become an all too common part of American school life. Yet the gun violence we often associate with schools, mass shootings that make headlines and capture the national psyche, are rare. While the possibility of mass shootings is a fear among educators, the reality is that many educators work in schools at risk of a more constant threat to their students – community violence. A 2020 GAO study found that most shootings that occur on school campuses are related to interpersonal conflict and occur outside the school building. Community violence is a persistent, daily threat in lower income and mostly of color neighborhoods that doesn’t receive the same level of attention and action that mass school shootings do.
Experiencing or witnessing violence in the community is an adverse childhood experience (ACE). ACEs are linked to chronic health issues and impact educational and job attainment as well as future violence and victimization. In schools overwhelmed with community violence, addressing students’ trauma and mitigating the violence is an uphill battle without targeted resources.
As a teacher in a low-income rural school with less than one full-time counselor and nurse, I lamented the lack of resources and infrastructure to help my colleagues and I target affirming and healing support for our students. A significant number of students in our classrooms had witnessed or experienced violence often or had been previously involved in the juvenile system. We’d tag team for this subset of kids– driving them home to avoid scuffles on a given street, scooting them into after school sports teams, or enlisting coaches or other trusted adults to mentor. In my own classroom, we held regular circle time to practice addressing conflict and self-regulation. I watched them light up when we read The Outsiders, relating closely to the novel’s characters, Ponyboy and the greasers, a gang finding redemption in themselves amid the stereotypes society imposes on them.
But when summer came, my students had limited options for safe and engaging places to be. One day, just two weeks before the start of a new school year, I received the worst call of my career. My student was 15 years old when his light was dimmed by an intentional bullet. He was one of the ones we scooted into the track team, watched him smoke the competition, and beam with pride when he nailed the symbolism in The Outsiders. As we learned from the novel, while we may carry darkness it is never all of who we are. And he shared his light with the people blessed enough to know and love him during his short life. His life mattered.
Those stories are far more common and yet this violence is preventable. We must first recognize it as the epidemic it is and treat it in a targeted manner, which is exactly what community violence intervention is and why the Biden Administration is prioritizing it in a whole government approach. Purposeful strategies to reengage disconnected youth such as through youth violence reduction programs, mentorship, and wraparound services like mental health counseling and youth workforce training, have an impact in reducing community violence. We should leverage local community expertise to build a social infrastructure. The Dear Colleague Letter released today encourages educators to think creatively about how to use Title IV-A and 21st Century Community Learning Center funding to prioritize healing interventions that keep kids safe, engaged, and building skills to persevere and thrive. Equity should mean every Ponyboy gets to maintain his light and stay gold.