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(p. 147) Students Exposed to Community Violence 

(p. 147) Students Exposed to Community Violence
(p. 147) Students Exposed to Community Violence

Dorothy Rohde-Collins

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Community violence refers to acts of aggression intended to harm individuals or neighborhood property, such as robberies, shootings, and stabbings (Kennedy & Ceballo, 2016). Chronic community violence refers to the frequent and continual occurrence of these violent and aggressive behaviors (Osofsky, 1995). While community violence is not limited to specific geographic areas or demographic groups, it disproportionately occurs (especially homicide) among minority, low-income, and urban communities. Exposure to community violence does not necessarily imply direct victimization by one of these violent acts. In fact, the likelihood of witnessing any act of community violence is higher than that of being a direct victim of violence (Stein, Jaycox, Kataoka, Rhodes, & Vestal, 2003). Although all members of the community are affected, chronic exposure to violence has a particularly toxic effect on children and youth.

Community violence is very different from other forms of violence that children and youth may witness or directly experience. Domestic, sexual, and physical abuse involves only a single individual or family unit, whereas community violence affects entire neighborhoods and communities. Community violence generally occurs without warning, and its unexpected nature combined with the seemingly random nature of the attacks contributes to an overall negative worldview. Those individuals who are either directly or indirectly victimized by community violence see the world as an extremely dangerous place where bad things can happen at any time to anyone, resulting in a general distrust of outsiders (Hamblen & Goguen, n.d.). This sense of distrust is frequently directed at a broad range of public services, including police, social workers, and even educators (Horowitz, McKay, & Marshall, 2005), leading to a reduced likelihood of disclosure or requests for support services.

(p. 148) Eighteen percent of children in a national sample reported witnessing assault in the community in the past year, and nearly 28% reported witnessing assault in the community during their lifetime. During both time frames, boys had a higher likelihood of witnessing assaults than girls (Finkelhor, Turner, Shattuck, & Hamby, 2015). For children residing in urban communities, the rates of witnessing violence are even higher, although they vary for different crimes and from city to city. In Chicago, 39% of 10- to 19-year-olds had witnessed a shooting and 78% of 7- to 15-year-olds had witnessed a beating. Further, in Miami, more than 93% of students at an alternative high school had witnessed one or more acts of community violence, with 42% having witnessed a murder. In New Orleans, 98% of youth had heard about some form of violence, particularly shootings, killings, gang violence, mugging, and drug and weapon use (Osofsky, Wewers, Hann, & Fick, 1993). Studies focused on youth in Baltimore and Washington, DC reveal similar rates of exposure (Stein et al., 2003).

Findings are inconsistent, however, when it comes to determining whether older or younger children are more likely to witness community violence. In fact, studies conducted in urban, low-income, and minority communities show high rates of exposure at all age ranges (Stein et al., 2003). Children and youth may report lower levels of exposure to community violence as they get older without reporting changes in their neighborhood. This has led some to believe that continued exposure to chronic community violence leads to habituation or a normalization and reduced conscious awareness of the violence. On the other hand, this may be explained by the tendency of younger children to exaggerate the extent of violence. It is also possible that older children report lower rates of exposure because they are less likely to spend free time playing outdoors (Guerra, Huesmann, & Spindler, 2003). Whatever the reason, it is possible that those who work with young children may hear about more acts of violence than those who work with older children, yet an educator should not assume that older children and adolescents do not experience violence simply because they do not talk about it.

Children and youth are notably safer in school than when outside of school or in the community. For example, during the 2014–2015 school year, 20 out of 1,168 homicides (1.7%) of children aged 5–17 years occurred either on school property or on the way to or from school. However, the overall crime victimization rate was 2.9% at school and 2.4% away from school (Musu-Gillette et al., 2018). Although much of a student’s exposure to violence occurs outside school walls, students may carry these experiences into the classroom each day; thus, the widespread nature of this problem implies that a large number of educators will be required to work with children who have been affected by community violence.


Rachel, 17, is exhibiting a new pattern of behaviors that has started to worry her teachers. She arrives late to school nearly every day and requires a great deal of encouragement to join classroom activities once she arrives. She rarely completes homework, and while she maintains passing grades, it seems as though she’s just doing enough to get by. She frequently sleeps in class and (p. 149) has recently exhibited occasional disrespect towards her teachers. Rachel no longer participates in any extracurricular activities and is unable to verbalize her post-graduation plans. Concerned about her lack of achievement and her recent number of tardies, Rachel’s teachers and school counselor request a parent–teacher conference with Rachel’s mother, Amanda. During the conference, Amanda explains that a homicide recently occurred along the route Rachel walks to and from school. The victim was a young woman who Rachel sees out on her porch many afternoons as she walks home. On the day the crime was discovered, Rachel observed many police officers processing the scene and interviewing witnesses and family members. Crime scene tape surrounded the house, and blood on the porch was visible from the sidewalk. Rachel has not been sleeping well at night, so she’s had a difficult time waking up on time for school. Amanda wants to help Rachel; but she leaves for work very early in the morning due to a long commute on public transportation, and no other adults are available to take Rachel to school. Amanda feels guilty that Rachel witnessed the aftermath of such a violent crime, but until they are able to move, Rachel will have to keep walking to and from school


Marcus, 13, is extremely disruptive at school, and his attendance is sporadic. He does not follow established rules or show any interest in school. As he walked into class one day, Marcus visibly flinched when his teacher tried to pat him on the shoulder as he greeted him “hello.” Before he realized the greeting was friendly, Marcus shouted, “Don’t touch me! Don’t you even think about touching me!” Marcus regularly seemed “on edge” according to multiple teachers. In a journal entry in which students were permitted to “free write,” Marcus described how he often heard gunshots or fighting and screaming when he was alone at home after school. While he was thankful he has not personally had any friends or family killed by violence, he is convinced that it is only a matter of time before he has to attend a friend’s funeral. He mentions that he needs to protect his mother and little brother from the violence but does not know the right way other than “manning up.”

Impact on Students

The impact of chronic community violence (e.g., Marcus) is vastly different from that of an incident of acute community violence (e.g., Rachel). While still potentially traumatic, an isolated incident of community violence may require only a situational adjustment while the child integrates the experience into his or her understanding of the world and society. In contrast, chronic community violence can have far-reaching effects on a child’s worldview. Repeated acts of violence shatter children’s assumptions about the world and lead them to believe the world is an unsafe and unfriendly place. This may explain research suggesting that prior experiences with community violence exacerbate post-traumatic stress symptoms (p. 150) after a natural disaster (Lai et al., 2018) and the potentially cumulative impact of repeated exposure. Further, chronic community violence represents the inability of adults to protect them from danger and, in the case of Marcus, a perceived obligation to take drastic measures to protect himself and his family. Further, children and youth may experience personality changes as they struggle to accept the role of danger in their daily routine (Garbarino, Kostelny, & Dubrow, 1991). Many children and youth may take pride in their stoicism and ability to remain observably unaffected.

Family Distrust

Caregivers also frequently have trouble making sense of the violence and may feel inadequate given their inability to shelter their children or prevent them from witnessing violence and crime. Caregivers may express a lack of trust of outsiders, including police, doctors, social service workers, and teachers, particularly in violent urban communities. In communities with above average reports of violence, parents and caregivers perceive outsiders as available only during the good times and that they seem to disappear when needed most. Teachers are considered unqualified and are often seen as being involved in altercations, both physical and verbal, with students (Horowitz et al., 2005). Some of these perceptions may be accurate in certain communities; compared to suburban schools, teachers in urban schools are much more likely to be inexperienced, a short- or long-term substitute, or less than fully certified (Jacob, 2007). Unfortunately, children often pick up on this distrust and assimilate these feelings into their own views. As a result, children frequently express the same lack of confidence and feelings of distrust, in part due to feelings of betrayal and anger for not being protected, and a worldview that adults are unable, or not interested, in protecting them (Horowitz et al., 2005; Osofsky et al., 1993).

Family Stress

It is important to state that the effects of chronic community violence may also be due, at least in part, to characteristics common to families living in dangerous communities. As stated before, families living in violent communities are also often living in poverty and frequently lack medical care or proper nutrition. These students may have an increased risk for family violence, overcrowding, and substance and alcohol abuse (Margolin & Gordis, 2000). All of these factors contribute to an increased stress level of family members, especially the primary caregiver. Since children look to their caregiver to model responses to events in their lives, a caregiver in distress can lead to children in distress. Similarly, positive caregiver–child relationships serve as protective factors against the effects of exposure to violence (Hardaway & McLoyd, 2011).

(p. 151) Somatic Complaints

Students may experience a number of somatic symptoms after exposure to community violence including headache, stomachache, muscle pain, trouble sleeping, and problems with appetite. Caregivers may report lower rates of somatic symptoms than when children self-report. Since caregivers may not be aware of their children’s symptoms, access to medical care or behavior therapy may be delayed, which in turn may prolong the healing process.

Academic Impact

There are academic implications of community violence as well. Being exposed to violent crime in the week prior to taking a standardized test has a negative impact on standardized test score performance. Black students are more affected by this exposure, and it accounts for significant differences among black and white students on elementary school English-language arts standardized tests (Sharkey, Shwarts, Ellen, & Lacoe, 2014). The impact on academic performance is not only isolated to an individual test. The standardized test scores of students who live in neighborhoods which experience more violence grow more slowly over time than those of students who live in neighborhoods that experience less violence. These results accumulate over time, causing long-lasting impacts on students’ academic performance (Burdick-Will, 2016).

Importance of Perception

Although it may not necessarily correspond to objective measures of community violence (neighborhood crime rates), the perceived exposure to violence has a more significant impact on the appearance of somatic symptoms (Hart, Hodgkinson, Belcher, Hyman, & Cooley-Strickland, 2011). In other words, a child’s perception of the amount of community violence better predicts somatic symptoms than what we might expect based solely on the crime statistics of the neighborhood. For this reason, educators should allow children to express their feelings and share their experiences even when they don’t align with formal reports of community violence. In addition, consider how community violence is discussed with and in the presence of children. While it is important to talk about it openly and honestly with children who have been impacted, ensure that children aren’t overly exposed to individuals who or news outlets that may overdramatize incidents of violence, making them seem worse or more prevalent than in reality.

(p. 152) Impact on Brain Development

Exposure to chronic community violence has a significant and lasting effect on brain development. Overexposure to the stress hormones produced in the brain can actually cause permanent physical changes. These stress hormones cause the areas of the brain that respond to threat to become overactive, causing children to react to non-threatening actions as though they are an act of violence or a threat to their safety (i.e., hypervigilance). Even small stressors like direct eye contact or an ambiguous remark or gesture from a teacher can trigger a negative reaction (Child Trauma Academy, 2002), as when Marcus reacted to his teacher patting him on the back.

While in a state of hypervigilance or hyperarousal, the brain is physically unable to logically solve problems, think creatively, or even learn and absorb new information. Over time, students with trauma histories may become increasingly avoidant and withdrawn from classroom activities, perceiving classroom lessons as irrelevant to their survival. Students may appear apathetic about academic achievement and make statements such as “I don’t care!” Unfortunately, this apathy, perceived irrelevance of school, and hypervigilant response to perceived danger may be helpful to survival yet detrimental to academic and social success.

Additional impacts on overall functioning are described in Table 8.1.

Table 8.1 Impact of Community Violence on Children and Adolescents



School/Classroom Behavior

  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares

  • Increased somatic complaints (e.g., stomachaches, headaches, nausea)

  • Increased aggression, viewed as a viable way to solve a problem or resolve conflicts

  • Regression to previous stages of development (i.e., bedwetting, speech patterns, neediness, clinginess)

  • Increased activity level or difficult to settle down

  • Changes in appetite, gaining or losing weight

  • Withdrawal from social relationships

  • Exhibits changes in play (e.g., acting out violent events)

  • Avoids people, things, and places that are reminders of the event

  • Starts or increases substance abuse or increases participation in risky behavior

  • Depression and/or anxiety

  • Emotionally numb

  • Desensitized to violence

  • Misinterprets neutral facial expressions as angry

  • Exhibits fight-or-flight responses to stressors

  • Skips school or class

  • Avoids classroom activities and assignments

  • Refuses to follow rules or rebels against authority figures

  • Hesitant to make friends, join groups, or participate in classroom discussions

  • Ambivalent about academic achievement

  • Memory impairment

Data from Child Witness to Violence Project (n.d.); Fowler, Tompsett, Braciszewski, Jacques-Tiura, and Baltes (2009); Safe Start Center, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (n.d.); and Wilkins, Tsao, Hertz, Davis, and Klevens (2014).

Cultural Considerations

Exposure to community violence and its subsequent impacts are issues not only in the United States. For example, teenagers in the Czech Republic and Russia witnessed community violence at rates comparable to teenagers in the United States, with more boys than girls witnessing these events. For all three countries, increased exposure to community violence was associated with increased alcohol and/or substance use (Lofving-Gupta et al., 2018). In Israel, Arab students were more likely to witness three or more types of community violence and have higher rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to their Jewish peers, although personal victimization is likely a greater predictor of that diagnosis. Overall, PTSD rates in Israel were similar to those in African American youth (Klodnick, Guterman, Haj-Yahia, & Leshem, 2014). As our schools often include students from immigrant or refugee families (see Chapter 6), we should consider the potential for exposure to community violence prior to arrival in our own schools.

Religious and spiritual practices may moderate the negative effects of community violence. Religious practices decrease the likelihood of conduct problems, and daily spiritual experiences are associated with greater life satisfaction among adolescents exposed to community violence. Further, the use of religion-based coping strategies decreases symptoms of both depression and PTSD. However, some attribute the benefits of religious involvement to the sense of belonging and (p. 153) additional social support for youth who may otherwise have a negative worldview (Jocson, Alers-Rojas, Ceballo, & Arkin, 2018).

Developmental Considerations

Community violence is, by its very nature, an extremely public phenomenon, which influences entire communities. The events and victims are discussed widely and openly, allowing an individual who was not personally victimized or present at the event to form a complete mental image of the incident (Margolin & Gordis, 2000). This may particularly impact young children as they lack control over their surroundings to prevent exposure to violence and lack the ability to completely avoid overhearing adult conversations and media reports. Adults frequently believe young children are oblivious to events and conversations, particularly given that young children may be less verbal about their fears and concerns, so their distress may go unnoticed (Farver, Xu, Eppe, Fernandez, & Schwartz, 2005).

(p. 154) Early exposure to community violence may have more significantly negative effects in some regards as children may develop a universal understanding of the world as an unpredictable, dangerous place. Given the plasticity of the brain among younger children, such early exposure may also disrupt developmental trajectories. Conversely, some children frequently exposed to violence early in life rather than later may express more resilience due to the plasticity of their developing brain. Therefore, the developmental impacts depend largely on the individual child and the contexts in which exposure to violence occur.

Strategies to Support Students

Schools and community agencies are instrumental in enabling children and adults to process the violence and develop a healthy worldview. These institutions have the potential to help traumatized students reform their view of the world to become more positive, trusting, and optimistic.

Reinforce That Any Violence That Has Occurred Is Not the Fault of the Student

Students may feel personally responsible for the violence, or they may feel like they didn’t do enough to stop the violent incident from occurring. Listen to students describe what happened and show compassion for what they experienced. Help students to name their emotions, and validate their feelings; but reinforce that they are not responsible for the actions of others. If students feel guilty for their own lack of action (e.g., didn’t report their knowledge of an event prior to its occurrence, didn’t call 911, etc.), help the student identify ways he or she can do things differently in the future.

Avoid Making Assumptions

Depending on developmental level and various other personal factors, any individual student may perceive and process acts of violence differently from other students. Never assume that all students will react in the same way. Ask questions such as “What do you think happened?” or “How do you feel about it?” Even if you as an adult witnessed the same violent act, remember that a child’s perception of the event, and the meaning and interpretation of the violence, may differ. If a student has a much different account of what happened, do not correct the student; simply listen and help process the experience.

(p. 155) Develop a Wide Variety of Before- and After-School Extracurricular Activity Options

Teachers and administrators can work together to develop before- and after-school extracurricular programs to prevent students from being left unattended or susceptible to the effects of violence. Time spent in a safe environment with adult supervision reduces the likelihood that students will experience additional exposure to community violence. Ensure that there is a wide range of offerings to appeal to a variety of students. Highly structured programs with opportunities for peer interactions are preferred. Programs may also improve areas damaged by trauma such as social skills, time management, and academic skills. Depending on community needs, it may be important to arrange transportation for participating students to promote good attendance and a mechanism to get home safely.

Get Involved Within the Community

Service-learning projects are an excellent way to improve the community while educating students about the value of altruism, commitment, political involvement, civic responsibility, and increased locus of control, particularly in urban communities with a high crime or violence rate. These projects may also offer students a different view of the community where people support and help one another. These service-learning projects may be initiated by a single-classroom or a school-wide initiative and may include the following:

  • Graffiti removal

  • Petitions or a letter-writing campaign asking for the restoration or destruction of vacant and dilapidated buildings/homes

  • Tree planting and landscaping of school grounds or public areas

  • Abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, domestic, etc.), drug, or violence awareness campaigns

  • Mentor program between high school students and elementary school students

  • Hosting a forum of local politicians, law enforcement, healthcare workers, and/or activists surrounding the topic of community violence

  • Hosting an event or drive for donations to plant a garden or for litter cleanup

  • Leading a peaceful protest or march in the community to bring awareness to the effects of community violence on children

While these suggestions may not directly influence the rate of violence in a community, service-learning projects can increase a sense of control, investment, pride, and belonging within the community. Further, these projects can provide valuable opportunities for students to develop social, leadership, and (p. 156) organizational skills and often be counted toward service-learning hours as part of graduation requirements.

Increase Parent/Caregiver Involvement and Trust

Engaging parents/caregivers provides one of the most effective ways to influence a child’s life, yet many schools struggle to find ways to engage families in the school community. Developing a relationship with the parents and/or caregivers of children exposed to violence is particularly important given that adult family members are also susceptible to the negative effects of living in a dangerous environment. Consider making phone calls regularly, highlighting positive behaviors and experiences, or updating the parent on the various activities going on in school. If it’s not possible to comment positively on academic progress, the conversation can simply focus on small successes such as arriving on time regularly, which can help to build trust and create an alliance between the school and the family. Schools may also host family nights at the school to increase familiarity with the school building and staff as well as encourage families to spend time together in a safe environment. Family nights centered around a non-academic activity (games, holidays, art show, open mic night, talent show, etc.) may be less intimidating than those based around academics (meet the teacher, parent–teacher conferences, etc.). Schools might also consider bringing back-to-school night into the community to help engage families that otherwise cannot get to the school during the evening due to complications of transportation, childcare, or work.

Encourage Writing and Journaling

Teachers can utilize writing prompts to stimulate thinking and allow for self-reflection in response to stress or trauma. Students will often reveal significant details or strong feelings in writing that they would otherwise have difficulty articulating verbally. Journal prompts can be assigned to reflect on an assignment or in response to a local or national current event. Journal prompts should be age-, grade-, and context-appropriate for students and open-ended to allow students to direct the process. The following list of journal prompts may seem superficial, yet the lack of specificity can help students feel safe when responding. Journaling often leads to impromptu class discussions, especially following a local or national event. In these circumstances, listen to the students and follow their lead. Guide the discussion so that all students who want to speak have the opportunity, though do not require anyone to share.

Possible journal prompts include the following:

  • What do you do well? What do you need to work on?

  • What do you like about yourself? What would you like to improve upon?

  • (p. 157) What do you want in a friend/neighbor/parent/teacher?

  • What do you value?

  • How did you feel when _____ happened? How do you think the people around you felt when _____ happened?

  • What are you most looking forward to right now?

  • What would your first priority be if you became president of the United States?

  • What would you invent to make life better?

  • When do you feel [happy/sad/excited/angry]? What do you do?

  • Describe the [best/worst/happiest/saddest] day of your life.

  • What is your favorite thing to do when you are not in school?

  • When you have a problem, who do you talk to? What do you do first? Why?

  • If you could improve one thing about your community, what would it be?

  • Quotes (students may respond to or reflect on a teacher-selected quote)

  • Free writes (students may write about any topic they choose for a specified length of time)

Maintain Routines and High Expectations

Expectations can have a profound effect on student success and progress, often becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, educators who set high expectations for their students and believe their students to be intelligent and capable encourage positive outcomes. Professional development can provide opportunities for educators to examine their individual implicit biases, to work toward correcting those biases, and to develop high expectations for all students (Education Commission of the States, 2012). Expectations should be realistic and take into consideration the student’s starting point and the outcome the teacher would like to achieve.

Additionally, routines should be established for common events in the classroom like entering/exiting class, coming to class late, taking notes, turning in assignments, using the restroom, and retrieving assignments after an absence. Regular routines create a rhythm of predictability in school which provides a sense of security and mitigates the negative effects of witnessing violence.

Reinforce Safety

Regularly remind students that your classroom and school are safe places and that you and the other adults are there to help at any time. While you may have limited influence on the safety of the community, reinforcing this sense of safety may reduce hypervigilance and heightened states of arousal during the school day, allowing for more learning.

(p. 158) Don’t Force Conversations

Some students may have difficulty communicating their feelings, emotions, or experiences; may fear the outcome of sharing experiences; or may simply lack trust that educators in the building will not make things worse. Simply let the student know you are there if he or she needs you with statements such as, “You look down today, and I’m concerned,” or “You haven’t seemed yourself lately. My door is always open to you if you need to talk.”

Use Teachable Moments to Demonstrate Problem-Solving

To counteract the state of hypervigilance, teachers have to help students relearn how to interpret social cues. Often called the hidden curriculum, skills such as positive peer and adult interactions, handling peer pressure, conversational skills, interpreting body language, and problem-solving can be specifically taught through one-on-one or classroom instruction including role-play activities, videos, and books. While these strategies are helpful when incorporated into individual classrooms, they are most powerful when adopted on a school-wide basis to provide a consistent experience for students.

Additionally, teachers and school-employed mental health professionals can teach stress management, coping mechanisms, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques that can be used at school or at home when a demanding situation arises. Modeling appropriate reactions (e.g., staying calm, taking deep breaths, showing empathy, developing non-aggressive problem-solving strategies) is an ideal way to teach these skills, especially given that some traumatized students may not regularly witness effective and appropriate problem-solving outside of school. This does not require a special counseling group and can be effectively achieved within the context of the classroom or an academic lesson. For example, teachers can use children’s literature to help students identify a character’s feelings, determine how a character might appropriately respond to conflict, and/or determine the outcome of an interaction between two characters. Teachers may also devise writing assignments or role-play exercises to evaluate literary or historical scenarios based on how characters responded to conflict and what alternative responses may have been more appropriate.

Be Flexible

Traumatized children live in a state of persistent arousal that inhibits their learning. Since they are so busy trying to determine the mood and thoughts of others, traumatized students often miss instruction or directions to assignments. Instead of accusing the student of not paying attention, teachers can provide students with multiple ways to take in information. Teachers can provide handouts or recordings (p. 159) of lectures for students to take home, give both written and oral directions to assignments, and allow opportunities for makeup work. Instead of having inflexible deadlines, teachers can allow students to submit drafts of work or complete projects in small sections. Talk with parents or caregivers about possible barriers to completing work at home, and work together to come up with solutions.


Help students to brainstorm what they can do in various situations to stay safe and manage their emotional response. For example, if they see or encounter something dangerous on the way home from school, perhaps there is another route home or someone they can call to walk with them or pick them up. Perhaps they can carry an alarm with them that might help them feel safer when walking in the community. Educators can also help students develop a plan for responding to emotional triggers (sounds, locations, experiences, etc.). These plans may include calming strategies, mindfulness techniques, or distributing phone numbers for crisis hotlines. After brainstorming, write the ideas down to create a documented plan the student can reference in the future.

Be Prepared to Report Possible Abuse

Children exposed to chronic community violence are at increased risk for child abuse and neglect, as well as domestic violence (Fortson, Klevens, Merrick, Gilbert, & Alexander, 2016). Thus, familiarize yourself with your district’s policy on mandated reporting of child maltreatment.

Know When to Ask for Help

Students should be referred to school instructional support personnel, such as school psychologists, counselors, or social workers, when they exhibit one or more of the following behaviors for longer than 1 month (Safe Start Center, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, n.d.):

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Nightmares

  • Social withdrawal

  • Frequent anger outbursts

  • Physical complaints

  • Rapid weight gain or loss

  • Intense anxiety, depression, or hopelessness

  • Increased substance use or getting in trouble with the law

  • Frequent worry

(p. 160) Conclusion

Chronic community violence has far-reaching effects that impact the entire community, particularly youth. Children and families living within communities affected by violence often develop a pessimistic impression of outsiders, which prevents some families from seeking and receiving support from the school. Parents and caregivers may internalize feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness, which stem from their inability to provide a safer atmosphere for their child. These feelings trickle down to children and youth, who experience significant difficulty in school due to their inability to regulate emotions and focus on academics.

Fortunately, schools can help. While targeted mental health supports exist from school-employed mental health professionals to support students exposed to violence, all educators can offer various supports within the classroom context that can substantially improve the outcome for students, families, and communities. Trauma-informed classrooms understand the impact of chronic community violence and counter its effects with sincere relationships between staff members and students. Administrators of trauma-informed schools create a warm, welcoming atmosphere and establish a school environment conducive to learning through regular routines and reinforcing a sense of safety. Schools can also address some of the ill effects of community violence by increasing family engagement and creating a welcoming environment where parents and caregivers are invited to participate in their child’s education all of the time, not only when there is a problem. The interventions and strategies explained within this chapter allow schools to become a driving force in the effort to counteract the effects of chronic community violence on youth and their families.

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. Think about a time you witnessed violence. How did your mind and body react? Has that experience resurfaced at other times in your life? Did witnessing that event change the way you perceive the world? Did witnessing that event cause you to change your own behavior or actions?

  2. 2. How do you think youth may react differently if they were to witness violence directly as opposed to only hearing it? Or only seeing it but not hearing it? Or just learning about it the next day? Or seeing the police or ambulance on the scene?

  3. 3. Which of the strategies mentioned in this chapter would you like to implement at your school? What resources will your school need to make them effective? How can you work with other staff members, students’ families, and community groups to incorporate these strategies into your school culture?

  4. 4. What local organizations or groups exist in your community that could partner with your school to offer support? How would they serve your (p. 161) students? How will you evaluate their effectiveness and/or determine if they are having the desired impact?


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      (p. 163) Appendix A: Web Resources

      Appendix B: Selected Children’s Literature

      • Cohn, J. (1994). Why did it happen? Helping young children cope with the experience of violence. New York, NY: Morrow Junior Books.

      • Crist, J. J. (2004). What to do when you’re scared & worried. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.

      • Holmes, M. M., & Mudlaff, S. J. (2000). A terrible thing happened—A story for children who have witnessed violence or trauma. Washington, DC: Magination Press.

      • Keats, E. J. (1969). Goggles! New York, NY: Viking.

      • Kivel, P. (2001). I can make my world a safer place: A kid’s book about stopping violence. Alameda, CA: Hunter House.

      • Leannah, M. (2017). Most people. Thomaston, ME: Tilbury House Publishers.

      • Reul, S. L. (2018). The breaking news. New York, NY: Roaring Brook Press.

      • Sterling, C., Conte, P., & Labay, L. (2015). Somebunny to talk to: A story about going to therapy. Washington, DC: Magination Press.

      Appendix C: Selected Young Adult Literature

      • Myers, W. D. (2005). Autobiography of my dead brother. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

      • Myers, W. D. (1999) Monster. New York, NY: Amistad.

      • Reynolds, J. (2017). Long way down. New York, NY: Atheneum.

      • Thomas, A. (2017). The hate u give. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

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