Violence Prevention & the Meaning of First Responders

describe the image We should be outraged about it all. Columbine. Newtown. Aurora. Virginia Tech. Some stories of violence make the news and stay in the news .  Some stories we may not hear about at all. We won’t know the names of the victims.  But whether it is on the front page of the Boston Globe, the back pages of the  New York Times, or not in the paper at all, it is worthy of outrage. has been compiling homicides since Newtown. It is not a perfect record, but an approximation of the violence that is seen (even if not noticed) in America.  Spend some time there and you will learn about the men and women, children and infants, yes—infants, who have been killed by gun violence in the United States these past few months.  At my last look, it was 3,774 people. I’m outraged.

The problem is clear – too many people killed with guns. But solutions are in debate.  Gun control, in one form or another, is certainly one mechanism to propel the conversation forward, but many of us already know that limited or unlimited gun control is only part of the answer to the problem.  If we want to make change we need to look at a range of solutions that address individual, family, community and social issues. This means a commitment to a multifaceted series of solutions to a complex social problem.  Our current strategies aren’t working now, and we need to consider a range of policies, programs, and practices if we are going to reduce (eliminate) gun violence.

The prevention paradigm considers the role of individuals, families, schools, communities, and government policy. This theory of practice seeks to implement effective strategies that have been proven to work and make positive change on targeted outcomes before, during, and after the onset of a problem.

“We have opportunity to look beyond the violent headlines at the helpers in the community, in the schools, who work in the non-profit sector to infuse prevention in the lives of all children.”

Using the prevention paradigm, tertiary responses to violence react to a crisis and are implemented to treat existing problems.  Tertiary practices, programs and policies look to the victim, who is injured or dead, and the perpetrator, who inflicted the wounds.  One classic and best known tertiary response is incarceration and victim support services. Alternatives to incarceration do exist (such as substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling), but so do more innovative programs and practices that look to make a positive impact right before the violent act. The Violence Interrupters highlights one approach that looks to engage youth at risk of violence at either end of the gun. They don’t look to disrupt the tangle of small gangs that have moved into (Chicago) neighborhoods, but they look to minimize gun related violence by coming in between gang turf battles and de-escalating neighborhood tensions. Their work is hard to quantify, but there appears to be some success from this on the ground model. But reactions to violence are not enough.

Secondary approaches to violence prevention are wide ranging from special education and educational enrichment to other forms of youth development and engagement targeting the “prime time of juvenile crime [1] ”; the after school hours between 3 and 6pm. And while there are many well researched and promising programs and practices that have been reviewed, I was most recently drawn to an article that helps to reframe the discussion away from the single target of a troubled or “bad” child, but towards the role that adults play in passing down messages of kindness, compassion, and fostering resilience. Rather than focus on a punitive approach to classroom behavior management, several schools around the country are looking at the environment of the school, and are reframing policies and practices of “blame-shame-punish” to policies that identify and consider the role of trauma in the lives of many children as they navigate their school day experiences.

Mounting evidence shows that early primary prevention and intervention programs, targeted before the onset of a problem, not only help to reduce violence, but also are cost-effective strategies that support a host of other pro-social outcomes, including high school completion and employment (and a subsequent reduction on social welfare programs). A 2010 report by the World Health Organization , stated: “Violence can be prevented. This is not an article of faith, but a statement based on evidence.” The report details seven prevention strategies that focus on individual development, promoting social relationships between peers, parents, and caregivers; teaching life skills; reducing access to drugs, alcohol, guns, and other weapons; promoting gender equality; fostering social supports and cultural competence; and early identification of victims coupled with programs and support and care for the needs of children, youth and adults who have experienced trauma. One of my favorite examples from a list of inspiring programs is the Nurse Family Partnership home-visiting program. The philosophy behind the program is aligned completely with a prevention perspective—targeting services early and holistically to support the developing needs of infants and their young parents. This program and other models of early intervention, that include high quality preschool, have been shown to reduce special education placements and child welfare interactions, and promote youth and parent educational and employment opportunities. Additional health and welfare benefits include lower rates of juvenile delinquency.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, many of us sat in shock as we reflected on an unimaginable act of terrorism. But even in that time of crises, we knew that the helpers were there. Messages on radio and television highlighted those brave citizens who came to the aid of those in need. The helpers were people from all professions working together for a common good—to restore health and justice and provide a sense of safety in an uncertain time. As we reflect on that moment and all the moments in time where violence takes and ruins lives, we have opportunity to look beyond the violent headlines at the helpers in the community, in the schools, who work in the non-profit sector to infuse prevention in the lives of all children. While we often think of first responders as those individuals immediately on the scene in a time of crisis, we may need to expand our definition to include frontline educators and human service professionals who come quickly in times of crisis, but also work more slowly to ensure that a crisis never happens in the first place.

[1] Newman, S.A., Fox, J.A., Flynn, E.A., & Christeson, W. (2000). America’s After-school Choice:The Prime Time for Juvenile Crime, or Youth Enrichment and Achievement. Washington, D.C.: Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.

Emily Mann is an Associate Academic Specialist in the Human Services Program at Northeastern University. She received a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the State University of New York at Geneseo, a Master’s of Science in Social Work, and a Ph.D. in Social Welfare from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied the effects of early intervention on delinquency prevention. Dr. Mann spent two years as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Clinical Research Training Program (CRTP) at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and was also a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow.  Dr. Mann’s teaching and research focuses on educational interventions and academic and social functioning.