A Different Lens

Why do we view inner-city violence differently than suburban violence?

Michelle Healy

The grief emanating from Parkland, Florida; Aztec, New Mexico; Benton, Kentucky; and Great Mills, Maryland—among the latest sites of gun violence in U.S. schools—speaks to school board members no matter where they serve. But for those who represent urban school districts, those emotions are tinged with frustration about the lack of attention and outrage focused on the impact of gun violence in their communities.

They know, for example, that although urban schools typically don’t experience mass shootings, the students in their schools are far more likely to experience firearm violence and death.

According to 2017 statistics on fatal and nonfatal childhood firearm injuries compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African American children face the highest rates of firearm mortality — a difference largely driven by black youth being more likely to be shooting victims than children from other racial and ethnic groups.

In fact, black youth are 10 times as likely to be killed by guns than their white peers, the data show.

Although exposure to violence near their homes and schools, and losing friends and families to gun violence often traumatizes students in urban schools, cries of anger and demands for change rarely go beyond the local community. These incidents of sorrow, injury, and death fail to grab the extended attention of lawmakers and the national media, or to galvanize public support for action like that which materialized after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, and now, at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

That disparity can be disheartening for urban school board members as they work every day to help their students deal with the trauma of violence and focus on the programs and policies intended to improve education in their districts. But the question remains: Why are these situations of gun violence viewed so differently?

‘A REGULAR, EVERYDAY THING’

One explanation likely rests with entrenched perceptions about schools and violence, says Antoinette Miranda, a professor of school psychology at Ohio State University and member of the Ohio State Board of Education.

“Urban schools are typically portrayed as dangerous and violent, while suburban schools are portrayed as these safe places,” Miranda says. “The irony, however, is almost all of the mass shootings that get publicized have occurred in suburban and rural areas that are predominately white, and perpetrated by a white male.”

Even how we portray the perpetrators of gun violence is decidedly different, depending on location, she notes: In suburban school shootings and instances of violence, “the first thing that’s discussed is the shooter’s mental health,” and the act is “viewed as a mental health issue.” In urban and low-income communities, however, the default cause is typically criminality and the perpetrators labeled as “thugs.”

It’s also important to consider the impact of the media in how we perceive violence in different communities, says Marnell Cooper, a former member and chairman of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners.

When individuals in a privileged community fall victim to violence, it’s relayed as a dramatic occurrence, deserving of intense, detailed coverage and examination, Cooper says. When the setting is a struggling, inner-city neighborhood, the coverage is “just a regular, everyday thing.”

In delineating the problems of less-privileged communities as wholly separate and removed from those of affluent, suburban communities, we allow ourselves to “view the issue of gun violence as different, when it really shouldn’t be,” Miranda says.

Socioeconomics aside, the children who are murdered, injured, or traumatized by these events are all victims.

Nineteen years after the Columbine High School massacre, and nearly six years after the Newtown school shooting, Cooper says he sees the acts of violence in more affluent school communities and the violence surrounding urban school districts like Baltimore “through a similar lens.”

No matter the location, the violence “is consistent with what I would call addictive behavior,” Cooper says. “By that, I mean there is a sort of self-destructive, self-defeatist thinking that develops in people, and is developing in our children.” That “harmful mindset,” he argues, “begins to manifest itself with these trends toward violence.

“That’s what we as the adults, as the educators, need to take as our focus,” Cooper says. Too often, we’re focused on the result instead of understanding what got us there, he adds.

UNDERSTANDING

One way that school districts are focusing on this goal is to emphasize connected, supportive relationships among students, staff, and their community, says Miranda, who has worked as a school counselor in urban, suburban, and rural school districts: “They are looking at how do we build a climate of support, how do we make sure bullying doesn’t happen, make sure kids want to look after each other.”

That’s been an emphasis of Ohio’s Warrensville Heights City Schools District, located about 15 miles southeast of Cleveland. Parents attending board meetings last year complained about student bullying in the schools, says board President Ray Freeman. Initiatives supported by the board, including the rollout of an anti-bullying app that allows students to anonymously submit, via cellphone, concerns about harassment, suspicious activity, and other issues to a school administrator, has helped “give the schools a more tranquil atmosphere,” Freeman says.

“One thing about the use of social media in urban schools is that students will tell,” he says. “Knowing someone is in possession of a gun and not telling wouldn’t happen here.”

This academic year alone, the district has had two separate instances of students bringing guns onto school property including one when a gun was discovered as a student went through a school metal detector.

The positive, engaged relationship between students, parents, and the district’s security officers has been essential to preventing violence in and around the school, Freeman says. The six officers assigned to the district’s 600-student high school “know our students, every single one,” and that’s a huge benefit to keeping them safe, he says.

EMPOWERMENT

Along with enacting policy that improves school climate and security, boards can also help “create a level of empowerment in students to be in control of their own narrative,” Cooper says. That can range from issuing public statements of support to aligning dollars that create opportunities where students can tell their stories.

Baltimore City Public Schools, for example, offered summer internships for students to learn to be reporters and participate with its City Schools Student Media Team. During the year, students create their own news stories that the district posts on social media.

In a city where one district alternative high school has had seven students killed in separate incidents of gun violence since October 2016, it’s important to not just focus solely on the stories that are negative, Cooper says.

As school board members, “we need to be thinking about what’s within our control,” says the Rev. Jayme Mathias, a trustee with the Austin Independent School District in Texas. “Certainly, our ability to influence policy and funding with respect to resources that can affect mental health issues as experienced by our students and families is one place for us to begin to make a difference.”

According to the Education Law Center, an estimated one-half to two-thirds of all students have experienced a traumatic external event or series of events, such as maltreatment, witnessing violence, or the loss of a loved one. Research shows that when exposure to these events surpasses a child’s ordinary coping skills, brain development and behavior inside and outside of the classroom can be affected.

Using a $4.5 million grant funded by the federal Victims of Crime Assistance Act and administered by the Texas Governor’s Office, Austin is significantly expanding its school mental health model to assist students and their families impacted by crime. The district currently operates 19 mental health centers in middle and high schools. “The grant will allow us to expand the model downward to 22 elementary schools” targeting those “in ZIP codes with the highest crime rates,” Mathias says.

“I’m told by a staff member that when therapists were on site at one campus, they were handed 30 referrals their very first day,” he says. “My fear is we may be grossly underestimating the need for mental health services for our students.”

The violence in Florida generally is seen as “a call to action” on the issue of gun violence, Mathias notes. At the same time, research shows that 1 in 5 children in the U.S. has a mental illness, but “that doesn’t rally us in the same way,” he says. “That needs to be addressed.”

‘THE KIDS GET IT’

Perhaps the lack of attention to gun violence in urban schools will be turned around with the nation’s newly mobilized young activists in communities across the country, Miranda says. “The kids get it” when it comes to understanding violence as not just about mass shootings in suburban schools but about lives lost and futures damaged in rural schools and urban communities as well.

That expanded view certainly was on stage at the national March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., in March, when Zion Kelly, 16, took the stage and spoke about the murder of his twin brother. Zaire Kelly was shot and killed last year after stopping at a convenience store on his way home from school in the nation’s capital.

Edna Chavez, 17, shared the story of her brother Richard, a high school student fatally shot in their South Los Angeles neighborhood in 2007. “I learned to duck bullets before I learned to read,” she told the crowd.

And there was elementary school student Naomi Wadler, 11, of Alexandria, Virginia, who urged march attendees not to forget the African-American girls and women who have been left out of the nation’s gun violence discussion.

Speaking of the Parkland student activists, Miranda says: “It’s interesting that you do have young people who understand this is a broader issue that touches on other communities, and are saying, ‘How do we, with our privilege, begin to be a voice for all kids so that it’s not just us who are getting all the attention, but gun violence in all communities is getting the attention?’ That would be wonderful if it happens.”


Michelle Healy (mhealy@nsba.org) is associate editor of American School Board Journal.

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