An alarming number of Chicago youth witness gun violence. Schools need support to help them heal.

The average age at which Black and Latino Chicagoans witness a shooting is 14, a new study found. Schools know it takes collective effort to deal with that trauma, the CEO of North Lawndale College Prep writes.

SHARE An alarming number of Chicago youth witness gun violence. Schools need support to help them heal.
Students in this June 1, 2022 photo stage a peace march around the Lawndale neighborhood, near where five people were wounded in a mass shooting. Dealing with trauma related to gun violence truly ‘takes a village,’ the head of North Lawndale College Prep writes.

Students in this June 1, 2022 photo stage a peace march around the Lawndale neighborhood, near where five people were wounded in a mass shooting. Dealing with trauma related to gun violence truly ‘takes a village,’ the head of North Lawndale College Prep writes.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The American Medical Association released a study last week about gun violence in Chicago, with a key finding that is startling: by the age of 40, nearly half of all Chicagoans will witness a shooting. That is almost impossible to conceive of if it is not your reality. If it is your reality — if it has been your reality for decades, like it has for far too many families and children on Chicago’s South and West sides — it is just another reminder of what we’re up against as we seek to protect our children.

The study found that only one-fourth of white residents are likely to witness a shooting before age 40, but the percentage increases to over 50% for Blacks and Latinos.

And the average age when that happens? 14.

As CEO of North Lawndale College Prep, that “age 14” hits me hardest. Fourteen is the start of high school, and at our high school, it is the beginning of helping students build towards their future — one that we hope includes growing into leaders who transform their communities for the better. And yet, we often must do that work against the backdrop of trauma.

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Schools like ours that serve majority Black, Latino, and low-income populations have long understood the impact of gun violence on our students. We know that when young people experience trauma, like exposure to gun violence, they are more likely to struggle with things like attendance, behavior, and academic achievement in the short-term, and everything from physical health to employment to addiction in the long-term.

Schools need more than academics

As more and more schools in Chicago grapple with this reality, here’s what we’ve learned that may help:

Cultivate an environment of support:From class offerings to staff structure, schools can make choices that ensure students feel safe and adults are equipped to meet their needs. At NLCP, we offer unique programs like drama therapy, have a dedicated student support team, provide staff training on trauma-informed teaching, and assign a staff member exclusively focused on freshmen to help them navigate this critical year.

Blur the lines between school and community: Founded at NLCP nearly 15 years ago, Peace Warriors are NLCP students who go through extensive training on nonviolent conflict resolution and are charged not only with keeping students safe within our school but also spreading peace across our community and city. Their days are filled holding peace circles to resolve conflicts, caring for those going through trauma, and conducting trainings with community organizations and other CPS students. When schools can nurture pride and ownership over their community, everyone is safer.

Leverage community partners: Among the many things we’ve learned from having the Peace Warriors is the necessity of being truly embedded in our community. If we want to combat the impact of gun violence for our young people and reverse the tide on the prevalence of violence in our communities, it starts with relationships and investment. Over the years, we’ve built partnerships with the Lawndale Christian Health Center, Volunteers of America, Books over Balls, Communities in Schools, and even helped found Phoenix Hall, a home created for NLCP students facing housing instability.

Solutions begin with community

These strategies broaden the web of support, provide valuable resources, and strengthen the bonds between families, students, school and community. No school can address this challenge alone. But when communities and schools together center on the experiences and needs of young people, they can make enormous progress in helping them through even the most difficult of circumstances.

We cannot accept this level of violence in our communities and we need to acknowledge the current reality. Curbing violence requires collective action, expertise, and resources that extend beyond any one community or school.

I look forward to seeing the perspectives of Mayor Brandon Johnson, who made clear his strong belief in community safety and community schooling, come to life during his first term. At NLCP, everything we’ve been able to do for our students has started right there — in the community of North Lawndale.

As we work to make our city safer together for our children, I hope all schools have the same opportunity to leverage the assets around them on behalf of their students.

Jemia Cunningham-Elder is the CEO of North Lawndale College Prep, a 25-year-old charter school institution in the North Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side.

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