As the prison sentences are handed down in the beating death of Fenger High School student Derrion Albert, this is also a time to reflect and question: What sparks such violence? At what age are children making critical, life-changing decisions about involvement in violent acts? How can communities— and especially schools—respond to help students?

In recent years, much of the focus on violence at Chicago Public Schools has pointed to dangerous activity affecting students in and around high schools. But in continuing surveys of principals, teachers, students and counselors, Communities In Schools of Chicago has found that it is critical to begin addressing violence—and the threat of violence—in elementary school. Violence prevention programming is the No. 1 concern among leaders of the 166 schools— largely elementary schools—we surveyed at the beginning of the 2010-11 school year. The importance of early intervention is underscored in a follow-up survey of 27 principals conducted in January 2011: 80 percent of principals said they would like programming to begin no later than 3rd grade, while 40 percent favored starting in kindergarten.

What also is striking is that while students and school leaders surveyed broadly agree that homes and schools are relatively calm and safe, only 22 percent of students report always feeling safe in their community.  Principals underscore the impact that community violence has on their students: 70 percent felt that gang and street violence have stayed the same or worsened over the past three years, and 90% said that witnessing violence also has stayed the same or worsened.  This information points to the importance of providing violence prevention programs to young children to equip them with the tools to understand and manage all manner and threats of violence in their neighborhoods, on the way to school and even in the schoolyard.

School leaders and students are deeply concerned that violence is a persistent problem that needs even more attention.  Above all, principals want support for comprehensive violence prevention and conflict resolution programs, yet the capacity of the schools to provide this programming is strained. Of principals surveyed, 93 percent said services within the school system are inadequate, and the combination of funding cuts and time constraints have compounded the availability of programming.

It is unacceptable that our school children are subjected to even the fear of violence. No one can doubt that violence presents a high hurdle to social and academic growth and achievement.  What can be done? It is vital that schools and community organizations develop and expand their partnerships to identify specific needs at each school and provide focused violence prevention programming, ranging from conflict resolution and anger management to anti-bullying and healthy decision-making. 

These programs can be delivered at no cost to schools or students because of private and public support. Non-profit organizations like Communities In Schools of Chicago partner with agencies such as the Cook County Sheriff Youth Services Department, Between Friends and others to connect children to lessons in conflict resolution, dating violence and bullying prevention and jail diversion.

What we know is this: Principals and school staff report that violence prevention programming does, in fact, improve a student’s sense of safety, self-esteem, attendance and academic performance.  Surveys and interviews show that the need for programming, resources, and community involvement all are growing. School leaders recognize the importance of helping younger students. Violence of any kind against students cannot be tolerated. Community partnerships with schools can make the difference.

Jane Mentzinger is the executive director of Communities In Schools of Chicago, a non-profit that works to connect schools with outside resources and programs.

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