Violence prevention expands nationwide

BY SUSAN KIM | Baltimore, MD | September 12, 2000

Violence prevention programs across the nation are expanding as the school year begins.

In Arkansas, at the Presbyterian-affiliated Ferncliff camp, some 41 U.S. teens from schools that had shootings met with each other and with youth who witnessed violence in Bosnia.

In Boston, a campaign sparked by four pastors who walked the streets at night has come to be affectionately known as the "Boston Miracle" because youth homicide rates have dramatically lowered.

In Flint, MI, the Neighborhood Violence Prevention Collaborative has funded more than 100 grassroots violence prevention efforts.

In Georgia, a new Web site launched by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency provides a forum for students and the public to anonymously report threats.

And on the global level, the World Council of Churches (WCC) is celebrating a Decade to Overcome Violence.

Overcoming violence is about "alternative ways of resolving disputes," said the Rev. Jan Love, an associate professor of international studies at the University of South Carolina. Love also represents the United Methodist Church on the WCC Board.

Conflict is normal, said Love. "Violence resides right in the heart of every one of us. The way we treat our own family members -- even if we don't hit them -- can be very nasty."

Resolving conflict before it turns violent was the whole reason why the Rev. Jeffrey Brown and three other pastors started, in 1992, walking the streets of Boston every Friday night from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. That was the year a gang broke into the Morning Star Baptist Church to stab a rival youth nearly to death.

"We walked the streets to listen, not to preach," remembers Brown. "We went out to anybody on the streets -- gang members, prostitutes -- and asked them how they saw the church helping them." Then the four pastors compiled a 10-point violence prevention plan that eventually became the Boston Ten Points Coalition

As the movement grew, the youth homicide rate went down -- and it's still down from where it was when the movement started. "During May 1995 to June 1998 we did not have one juvenile homicide," said Brown, who is now pastor at Union Baptist Church. "This past year there was a slight escalation."

Boston is a city that has managed to involve the faith community in its crusade for non-violence. "Most areas lack the church input in the overall solution of criminal justice or violence prevention," said the Rev. Jeremy Montgomery, an Assembly of God minister who worked with the Boston Ten Points Coalition. "But here the police, the schools, and the mayor's office recognized that we have to go through the churches. As clergy, we have to be in the courts. We have to be in the schools."

Montgomery also participated in a Ten Points Coalition program called Operation Home Front in which clergy and police visit the homes of at-risk young people.

The faith-based roots of what became a citywide effort surprised government and community leaders alike. "What's remarkable about them is that it's a bunch of churches saying 'we can't take this any more,' " said Lisa Kane of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The best approach to violence prevention, she added, "is not changing kids' behavior, it's changing the adult behavior -- the way adults respond to kids in trouble."

Linking different sectors that are working toward the same goal is another way to strengthen violence prevention programs, said Elaine Hughes, director for programs with the the National Funding Collaborative on Violence Prevention (NFCVP) in Washington, DC. "Folks in areas or fields tend to work in silos and tend not to interact," she said.

The NFCVP has funded eight collaborative efforts nationwide that are trying to address the root causes of violence. "We are currently trying to bring churches to the table," said Hughes. "Engaging the faith community in response has become a big issue." The NFCVP is planning to publish "tip sheets" on how to engage the faith community in violence prevention programs.

Violence prevention program leaders tend to agree that local community leaders -- rather than outside experts -- are best at determining what methods will work in certain neighborhoods.

"The folks in the neighborhood know best how to prevent violence," said Pete Hutchison, director of the Flint, MI-based Neighborhood Violence Prevention Collaborative (NVPC), which gives grants to neighborhood programs, even small unincorporated ones. Through a Technical Assistance Training Institute, NVPC trains people in the art of community organizing -- then send those newfound experts out to help the budding community groups.

Sometimes, though, it's a matter of training the people who work with youth what to look for. The Georgia Emergency Management Agency has a school safety division - an area increasingly replicated in other states. School safety coordinators not only train schools in general emergency management, response and recovery. They also teach educators how to spot weapons and, at a school's request, will teach staff how to respond to a violent incident.

And if an incident should happen anyway? Then it's time for healing, says David Gill, director of the Presbyterian-affiliated Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center in Little Rock, AR. At a five-day camp called "Connections 2000" in July, Gill and his staff brought together some 41 youth from schools hit by violence as well as six youth from Bosnia.

"The goal was, first, to form an organization that could help others heal, and, second, to work on their own healing," said Gill. Young people at the camp were encouraged to write their own stories in journals, then share them. With help a University of Arkansas professor, those writings will form an anthology "by kids, for kids," said Gill.

The Ferncliff "alumni" want to form a group that can travel to schools or communities hit by violence and offer a peer-to-peer perspective that could bring healing. A small group will meet again in October to more solidly structure the fledgling effort.

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