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‘A million stars’: Programs aim to prevent gun violence, its traumatic fallout

An illustration of four students sitting in chairs and talking.
Crixell Matthews
VPM News
(Illustration/photos: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The number of young people killed in firearm homicides has surged during the pandemic.

This story is part of the series " Another Way: How one Virginia city reckons with gun violence." During the past four months, VPM News reporters have spoken with city and school officials, support organizations, community members, and the family and friends of slain young people in Richmond. This is what they learned.

It's early August, and a group of about two dozen Richmond students in grades 6 through 9 are settled around four tables in the Peter Paul Development Center’s gym with an adult at each one. Dre’mon Miller is hyping up the kids before diving into a serious topic: gun violence.

Miller’s company, Street Smartz Over Safety, received a micogrant to put on the program.

In May, Mayor Levar Stoney announced the city would invest $1 million in microgrants to fund multiple one-, two- and three-day programs aimed at preventing gun violence. The city partnered with the nonprofit NextUp to distribute the funds.

Miller, who’s both head of Street Smartz and a Richmond Technical Center teacher, asks the group of students: “How many people in here either know someone who owns a gun, know someone who has been a victim of gun violence, someone who maybe has passed away due to the use of a gun?”

Everyone’s hands go up. 

The number of young people killed in firearm homicides has surged during the pandemic: 40 people ages 25 and younger were killed in 2021 in Richmond, double the number of deaths in the age group in any other Virginia locality, according to data from the state medical examiner's office.

After a game of bowling, the students break into small groups for discussion, and city councilmember Mike Jones asks the children at his table who they’re most likely to relate to when receiving information about gun violence. All of the kids named Mr. Dre, as they call him, over their own parents or other adults. 

Researchers would call Miller a credible messenger — a person who connects with youth through shared experiences and respect. 

“Credible messengers are really trusted people that go in, they understand the pulse of the community, what's really happening and driving some of the things in the community. And they can help change the norms of the community,” said Torey Edmonds, community engagement coordinator for Virginia Commonwealth University, who co-chaired Stoney’s gun violence prevention workgroup. 

“People think they are these secret people working undercover to get information and give it to the police to stop a shooting. That's not what a credible messenger is,” she added. 

Miller can relate to a lot of the kids he’s worked with, even though he said he doesn’t often share personal experiences with students.

“I’ve had experiences of living in places and opening up my door, and someone’s bleeding at the front of my door,” Miller told VPM News a day after the program. “I’ve seen people playing with guns. I've had family members who were killed by guns.”

He even wrote an essay for his high school literary magazine about his experiences. 

It begins: “Living in Creighton Court was not the best experience for me. Every other house was considered a trap house. In the summer, around 6:30 pm, young men would walk down the streets with guns and warn everybody to be in the house by 9 pm because there was going to be a shootout. My mother would pack a bag of clothes and head for our grandparents’ house on Southside, where we knew we were safe.” 

Witnesses to gun violence

Another group of about 40 students from two Richmond middle schools are part of a more intensive after-school program called We Matter. They’ve either witnessed gun violence or have siblings who’ve been involved in it.

Charles Johnson, coordinator of student support services for Richmond Public Schools, said the We Matter curriculum “strategically talks about the kinds of things that our young people are experiencing. And then as a result of experiencing those things, what are some of the things that you can do to be able to somewhat resist negativity, resist peer pressure, resist those things that come along with gun violence?”

The city received $500,000 in grant funding from the state to launch the program last year. There are two main parts to each day of the program: a fun recreational activity and a group discussion.

Trevor Walker works with students at River City Middle School as site coordinator for the nonprofit Communities in Schools. He identified students who would be a good fit for the program, based on some of the things they’d shared with him. He has an office in the school, where kids can drop by and share what’s on their minds.

One student’s father was shot and killed in front of him. And the same child witnessed a drive-by shooting while at a birthday party, Walker said.

“And he was just a quiet kid, sixth-grader, who came in. And you know, he did his work, he didn't bother anybody. But he kind of had an anger issue,” Walker said.

With the help of We Matter, Walker said he’s thriving.

“He's building healthy relationships, not only with adults, but with other students. He's learning to trust people. His grades have improved, his attendance has improved,” Walker said. “He's building a better future for himself.”

Marchelle Williams, an immediate response clinician for ChildSavers, has been working with the River City Middle School students in the We Matter program as well. She said they’ve helped kids learn conflict-resolution skills. Role-playing ways to resolve conflict — like sibling rivalry — has been a fun way to get kids engaged, she said.

Williams recalled one scenario: two siblings arguing over who would get the bigger bedroom.

“And they had to act out who would get it. And they decided to do a competition based off of that. They decided to do a quick race [to determine who got the bigger bedroom], which is really funny,” she recalled. “Would that happen in real life? We don't know.” 

They’re also learning money-management skills, which can be applied immediately. Students get a $500 stipend at the end of each semester, which Rachel Jamrozy, an immediate response clinician with ChildSavers, said is an important part of the program.

“That seems to be huge. It's a really big motivator for them to come to the program. That’s kind of why they come, but then they really enjoy it while they’re here,” Jamrozy said.

Jessica Shin works with a separate group of students in the We Matter program at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. She compared their degree of trauma to navigating a dangerous situation.

“When you have a bear coming home every day, the nerves in your brain are strengthening in those areas of like, I need to protect myself, that instinctive fight or flight mode,” Shin said. “It takes away all the energy to build up the nerves in your brain for emotional regulation, impulse control.”

Shin said trauma can manifest itself in various ways: kids struggling to stay in their seat; fighting with other children; or bouncing off the walls, among others.

She said these behaviors are sometimes a cry for help that gets misdiagnosed as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. This is an issue that other experts have grappled with; not many researchers have studied the overlap of trauma and ADHD symptoms. 

With the We Matter program, Shin has helped students manage their emotions through journaling, breathing and grounding techniques. In one of the grounding exercises, she asks students to name five things they can see and four things they can touch.

Shin said it helps to “ground yourself in the present moment and not think too much about the future or whatever is causing you stress or feelings of [being overwhelmed].”

She hopes these exercises will help them deal with major traumas, as well as everyday stressors like homework.

“That's my hope. Planting those seeds,” Shin said.

‘Gone because of gun violence’

Following a bowling match, complete with gift cards for the winning teams, the kids head back to their tables for a group discussion.

Miller has prepared a series of questions for the adult leader to ask. Things like, as a teen, who would you normally go to for advice? If you were in charge of the city of Richmond and could change the rules, how would you respond to the increase in gun violence? And what events and opportunities would you like to see added in the city for youth to participate in?

Councilmember Jones led the discussion at one of the tables.

Fourteen-year-old Leilani said she goes to her therapist for advice and thinks the gun buyback program is a good idea. She also suggested throwing block parties for kids to let loose and relax. After the discussion wrapped up, she said the perfect time to reach young people about gun violence is during their early teen years. 

“I feel like this age group … is the main age group that really starts to get into gun violence, really starts to get into gangs, thinks they want to be included in this type of lifestyle. But they don't really understand what it's like to be in this lifestyle,” Leilani said.

Leilani turns over a piece of paper she’d been using to keep score of the bowling match and starts drawing stars all over the page with a black sharpie. At the bottom, she writes: “A million stars gone because of gun violence.”

‘Tremendous trauma’

Some researchers are skeptical that programming like this will actually prevent gun violence. 

“Is it a good thing? Will the people supported, we hope, be better off for it? Yes. Should we do it on the merits? Yes. Will it help Richmond’s gun violence problem? Almost certainly not,” said David M. Kennedy, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “People have a very hard time understanding that, and then they don’t like it.” 

Kennedy said he doesn’t think these programs will actually prevent gun violence because they aren’t targeted enough. In other words, he said, the effect of the problem is huge, but the kernel of it is very small. 

“Almost none of the people statistically who are exposed to risk factors will ever hurt anybody or will ever be hurt,” Kennedy said. “So, part of the difficulty people have in thinking about this is that they think about risk factors, they think about causes and causal factors. And those turn out to be extraordinarily weak predictors of the thing itself.”

Kennedy developed Operation Ceasefire in Boston during the late 1960s, which has since come to be known as an evidence-based approach to gun violence prevention called Group Violence Intervention. It focused on intervention with the small group of people responsible for violence in the city. 

“I think one of the challenges is that the impact of gun violence in a city has tremendous trauma on a wide swath of the city,” said Ari Davis, policy advisor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. “The funding can go to great programming that's really needed. But we need to also ensure that there are the highly-focused and targeted interventions that identify those small groups and small networks of folks who are perpetrating violence, and not only deter them from perpetrating future violence but also connect them to social supports.”

Davis said focusing only on deterrence, rather than connecting people to the resources they need, can be a short-sighted strategy. 

“That can actually, in the long run, lead to more distrust between communities impacted by violence in law enforcement and public safety,” he said.

Reid Stowe is a city engagement associate for Cities United, a national organization working toward the reduction of homicides among young Black men and Black boys. He also helped craft Richmond’s current gun violence prevention and intervention framework. 

For Stowe, gun violence prevention is largely about connecting residents with the resources and services they need.

“A lot of folks really just want to see prosocial activities in their communities. They weren't looking for any in-home counseling, they weren't looking for any handouts,” he said. “They really just wanted to have fun with their families and be able to connect on that level.”

Edmonds, co-chair of Stoney’s gun violence prevention workgroup, agrees.

“Lack of resources and just everyday needs not being met … it's a risk factor. Our words become risk factors if we don't begin to change the narrative,” Edmonds said. “You know, youth violence is a risk factor, we say it like youth are just naturally violent. And it's really about lack of positive youth development.”

But Edmonds said those resources need to be targeted to those communities most impacted by gun violence in the city. 

“Everybody's not being impacted by gun violence the same way as certain communities are,” Edmonds said. “We’ve got to own that. And we got to say ‘why?’ And if we're not willing to answer the ‘why,’ we’re just playing games. It's gonna be a waste of money.”

Read more stories from the series "Another Way: How one Virginia city reckons with gun violence."

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.
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