Embedded allies will be key to victory over youth violence

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President Trump’s proposal to address school violence includes elements ranging from the creation of a federal commission on school safety to providing training for teachers to be armed in the classroom, to strengthening background checks for gun purchases.

Sadly, all of the elements of this strategy deal with external factors and are part of a “cops, curfews and cameras” mindset that has proved ineffective in preventing the tragic loss of life to youth violence. This approach ignores a key component that is crucial to an effective anti-violence strategy: the capacity that exists within the youth population itself to establish and sustain a safe school environment.

{mosads}For 20 years, the Woodson Center has conducted an effective violence-reduction program, establishing Violence-Free Zones (VFZ) in some of the most dangerous communities and schools by mobilizing and supporting local leaders from within the afflicted communities. These neighborhood leaders serve as healing agents in the neighborhood. Their on-site, constant, personal outreach to troubled and predatory youths has had the remarkable proven capacity to transform violent gang members to redirect their lives and begin to serve as ambassadors of peace in their neighborhoods.


The program was created in 1997 to address a crisis of violence between warring factions in the Benning Terrace Public Housing complex in Washington, D.C., which was a notorious killing field, where there had been 53 murders in two years within the five-square-block complex. The police were fearful of venturing into the complex, residents were afraid to use the streets, and the playgrounds were empty.

All of this changed when the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (now the Woodson Center) was contacted by a local grassroots organization, the Alliance of Concerned Men, who requested assistance in implementing intervention outreach that would focus on reaching and working through the leadership rival “crews.”  

The members of the Alliance had a firsthand understanding of the conditions the youths lived in, having faced the same challenges. Because they had a long-term commitment to these youths and were available 24/7, they earned their trust. The crew leaders agreed to come together at our offices. After an hours-long meeting, remarkably, they agreed to a peace pact; shooting in the neighborhood ceased immediately and there was not a single crew-related murder for 12 years. The truce made headlines around the country, and authorities — including the Metropolitan Police Department and the D.C. Housing Authority receiver — did what they could to support the newly-established peace.

Gang leaders and members who had once destroyed and divided their community joined together as the Concerned Brothers of Benning Terrace and seized the opportunity for productive engagement, ranging from graffiti removal and landscaping to serving as peer mentors.

The model of the VFZ initiative since has been embraced by public school systems throughout the country and implemented successfully in some of the most dangerous schools of Milwaukee, Dallas, Atlanta and Baltimore. The young adults who have been enlisted as youth advisors to be present in the halls, cafeterias and detention rooms of schools are known, respected and trusted by the students, and are included within their social media communications network.  

When alerted of an impending altercation or act of violence, these mentors have been able to intervene proactively and defuse the situation. The VFZ initiative has operated in Milwaukee Public Schools for 14 years and is credited with helping to produce a 25-year low in violent incidents.

The youth advisors’ access to students’ communications is a vital component of violence reduction in both urban and suburban schools. In 2004, the Department of Education and the Secret Service published a report reviewing 37 school shootings and school attacks from 1970 to 2000 to determine if there was a common element in the shooters’ profiles. There wasn’t. But the study did reveal one element that was found in nearly all of the shootings: The killers had told someone in their social network what they were going to do.

This information was unavailable to authorities, who are not tuned into the wavelength of the youths’ communication system, known on the street as “the buzz.”  The VFZ youth advisors fill this information gap. They provide a conduit for student input in schools in the multicultural affluent suburban community of Montgomery County, Maryland, as well as in the inner-city schools of Baltimore.

The success of the Violence-Free Zone initiative is evidence that a key solution to the crisis of youth violence can be found among those who are suffering the problem and that youths can play a critical role in their own protection. Recognizing the unique capacity that exists within the population suffering the problem should be a key element of our nation’s strategy to effectively address the tragedy of school shootings and youth violence.

The crisis we face cannot be solved by a strategy that focuses only on more police and fewer guns. We must recognize and utilize the transforming capacity that exists within the afflicted neighborhoods.

Robert L. Woodson Sr. founded The Woodson Center in 1981 to help residents of low-income neighborhoods address problems of their communities. He has headed the National Urban League Department of Criminal Justice, and has been a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Foundation for Public Policy Research. Follow him on Twitter @BobWoodson.

Tags Crime Donald Trump Education Gangs Human behavior Nonviolence School violence Violence-free zone Youth work

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