Street Violence “Part of Achievement Gap” in Urban Schools

Steve Giegerich, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 9, 2008

Stephen Ross listed the litany of crimes that have touched his life with the nonchalance of a kid reciting the names of favorite teachers.

A cousin slain last year, the fatal stabbing of a stranger he witnessed in 2004, an uncle stabbed and injured, a friend’s uncle murdered, the two incidents when he was personally assaulted, a brazen burglary at family’s former home where thieves pretty much grabbed everything that wasn’t nailed down, including the refrigerator. Stephen (pronounced Stefan) paused upon finishing the list.

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The toll that kind of fear exacts on youth is becoming increasingly evident as researchers draw a line between classroom performance and the trauma and violence encountered by urban students.

It’s a correlation, the experts are discovering, that leads to under-achievement if not outright academic failure in places such as St. Louis.

Preliminary research from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, for example, suggests that more than two-thirds of the city’s public school students may be suffering symptoms of trauma tied to violence.

Steven Friedman, the executive director of Cleveland’s Mental Health Services calls the repercussions of violence on urban youth, “the mental health issue no one was addressing.”

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NUMB, DISTRACTED, EXHAUSTED

The early returns on UMSL’s research are disturbing, yet, given the city’s reputation, not entirely surprising.

Of the 75 children interviewed so far, 20 percent said they’d witnessed a murder by the age of 12. Another 50 percent had observed physical assault and 25 percent had seen someone threatened by a firearm.

The upshot is that an estimated 70 percent of children attending the city schools have symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder. Another 50 percent suffer from depression and 70 percent reported problems sleeping.

The current research piggybacks a five-year study, completed in 2003, that tracked 430 St. Louis children. Those findings concluded that when children are witnesses to crime they suffer a host of problems, from a loss of self-confidence to a negative self-image.

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When numbed, distracted and exhausted students walk through the schoolhouse door, experts say violence claims yet another victim—learning.

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ENDING THE CYCLE

Cleveland’s initiative began in 1997, when Mental Health Services joined with social services, law enforcement, the schools and Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital to form the “Children Who Witness Violence Program.”

Under the program, when children are exposed to domestic violence or the death or injury of a loved one, police summon an “EMS response for social services.” If necessary, counselors assist the family with funeral arrangements, provide food and even advice on how to deal with the media.

From that point, the children are monitored and assessed. Schools are placed on alert. Within 90 days, a referral is usually made for long-term counseling. Approximately 40 percent of the families take advantage of the offer, said Rosemary Creeden, the program manager.

The program has been so successful at treating the “emotional consequences” of violence for immediate families that Creeden hopes to expand the service to children once, twice or more removed from violent acts.

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Boys in particular identify with aggressors, [Creeden] said, because “they believe that if you can be like the people you are afraid of, then you have less reason to be afraid.”

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