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‘Back to school’: Kids get a break from violence, but trauma slows learning | #schoolsaftey


For many, summer in Chicago is synonymous with increased violence. And although Chicagoans know that cooler weather cools tempers, fighting everyday gun violence is a 365-day-a-year mission, and it starts with our children’s education. 

Chicago Public Schools will soon begin a new school year, and once again most schools are underprepared and under-resourced to manage the trauma students bring with them into the classroom.

I started the anti-violence program Kids Off The Block from my home two decades ago in Roseland to give kids and families what they need to stay off the streets. People are quick to demonize youth who commit crimes, but I’ve seen first-hand why kids join gangs: Most get involved out of a need to be responsible for their families. Sometimes all it takes is the lights getting shut off because their single mom doesn’t make enough money to pay the bills. Other times the medical needs of a grandparent who raised them make buying food unaffordable. 

These kids don’t need to be put in jail. They need help. To help with that, Kids Off The Block is partnering with Curtis Elementary School in Roseland and the University of Chicago to offer trauma-informed services to reach students before they get involved in negative behavior. This is even more important in the aftermath of COVID-19, where young people were isolated with their families, many in unsafe home environments.

If approached the right way — through mentorship and engaging in activities they actually like to do — we can address the mental health needs of our youth. 

That’s exactly what we do at Kids Off The Block, but we need the city and state to step up because ending everyday gun violence is about investing in communities, school systems and our youth. Not just from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but year-round.

Too much trauma to focus on school

We partnered with DePaul University’s Chicago Gun Violence Research Collaborative for two years on a forthcoming youth-led study of everyday gun violence and how it impacts youth who grow up in the communities where it’s most common. The study finds that the majority of youth think of school as a sanctuary because it’s safe and provides reliable meals, but when it comes to their lessons, there’s too much trauma and responsibilities at home to focus on learning the material.

How can we expect a child who’s likely experienced everyday gun violence more than once to learn in the same way and at the same pace as a child who hasn’t endured that trauma?

Young people tell me how hopeless they feel, how their community looks like a war zone with no food, abandoned buildings and shootings in the streets. They suppress their emotions to survive. One young man told me he expects his friends to be shot and killed — he expects it to happen every day. Other children feel exactly the same. Enough is enough. Where is the outreach?

These youth feel expendable and worthless because they see the lives of their friends snuffed out by gun violence and nothing changes. My experience has taught me that the only way to help is to listen and offer small solutions without judgment. When a young person comes to me, it doesn’t matter what they’ve done or even what they’re still doing. I’m there to listen and find ways to make their lives more manageable so they don’t need to turn to crimes of survival. 

We also provide programming that is actually fun. People minimize the effectiveness of basketball, but I’ve seen lives literally saved by this game. Kids want to play so badly that they respect the court as neutral territory. Boys from rival gangs shoot hoops together, and then when they see each other in the streets, they move along because they know each other. I’ve seen it happen, again and again.

Gun violence takes more than a person’s life; it isolates entire communities. If one house on the block has lost a child, it affects the whole block. The social fabric of the community is lost to grief and despair. This is what many of today’s young people are living through, and for them, school is so much more than reading and arithmetic. School is an opportunity to mend that social fabric and rebuild lost communities, one student at a time. 

Diane Latiker is the founder of Kids Off the Block and author of “Kids Off the Block: The Inspiring True Story of One Woman’s Quest to Protect Chicago’s Most Vulnerable Youth.” She is a member of One Aim’s coalition to prevent gun violence.

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