Tio Hardiman Credit: photo by Cassandra Vinograd

The best way to deter violence in schools is to develop relationships with kids, says Tio Hardiman of the Chicago Project on Violence Prevention at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Hardiman, who spoke candidly of running away from home as a teenager and eventually moving to another side of town to avoid gangs, advocates using former gang members to work with kids. He talked with Senior Editor Elizabeth Duffrin.

How can schools prevent gang violence?

I’ll tell you, that’s hard. The schools need to allow programs that are more unconventional, that are tailor-made for what [kids] are going through right now. My message is pretty much [to] enter their world and then bring them into my world. We talk about how hard it is for a kid to get up in the morning and have no food in the refrigerator, then he gets to school and somebody tries to bully him and he knocks the guy out because he’s starving and really he just wants to get in the classroom and eat. We talk about [times] when guys didn’t sleep all night because the father was beating up the mother and the guys have no way to express their anger. We talk about how one guy had his father beat up, and how the other guy didn’t respect his mother because she might be getting high on drugs.

Is there a lack of counseling in schools?

You need effective counselors. … The Chicago Public Schools are going to have to get people in there that understand those dynamics that have such an impact on these young men. [They’re thinking], “You’re telling me to come to school today and learn when I’m 16 or 15 and I’ve just gone through this traumatic experience at home just last night, and on top of that I haven’t eaten anything, and on top of that I got four or five guys up in my face telling me to join the street organization?” If you can’t deal with that, you can’t teach that [kid].

So it’s about building relationships?

It’s about building relationships. When I tell my [life story], I don’t spend a lot of time on it because what I’m trying to do is talk about mobility. I talk about how I traveled, how I met so many different people. I talk about becoming a real citizen. A lot of people don’t talk to them about this stuff, and they need to actually believe they can do it. Some of these young kids don’t even go off their block.

Are schools doing enough to counteract all the temptations kids have?

Schools are doing the best they can, but like I said, the missing link that’s out there is the community. [Kids] get out of school every day and they have nothing to do. That’s not the school’s responsibility, that’s the community’s responsibility. Schools do have to be open-minded. A lot of people that have been thrown [out of] the system have felonies in their background and can’t really work in the schools. [But] these are some of the guys and women that can get through to these guys potentially. We may have to hire a guy who has a [gang] background, but who is no longer active. We might have to begin to say “Look, put this guy on your security.”

What support have you received from the district?

Arne Duncan has told us that we’re going to get a list of schools to work in. We’re going to expedite that as soon as we can.

What’s the plan?

To do group sessions with students to talk to them about the issues [and] to identify the activities that will be most beneficial. For example, keep the school open from 6:00 to 9:00 or 10 p.m., and don’t just have basketball. Mix it up. But the most important part is getting former gang members to give them a lecture that they’re not used to hearing. You got these guys who these young people look up to, we need them. We can’t get around it.

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