Stopping Exposure to Community Violence: The Interrupters

Violence in America is a growing public health crisis, and the City of Chicago has seen some of the worst of its outbreaks in the past few years. Communities are losing children and teens every day to the affects of this violence exposure. But community members and organizations are working to prevent and reduce this impact. One of these organizations really stands out from the crowd.

CeaseFire was founded by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, who once fought infectious diseases in the developing world. His belief is that the spread of violence works exactly the same way as disease, and that in order to stop it, it must be treated in the same way. One of the most compelling aspects of the organization is their Violence Interrupters program. It works because it employs the people who once carried out violence in the streets. Because of their history they have the drive to prevent further violence and the experience and credibility that get people to listen. They operate under the assumption that people about to transmit violence have two thoughts:

  1. I have a grievance
  2. That grievance justifies violence

To target and stop this violence Interrupters focus on that last thought. Their role is to do an interruption at the start of violence transmission, similar to stopping an infectious disease at is source.

These unlikely advocates were recently the topic of a documentary, The Interrupters. It follows three Interrupters as they work in their neighbourhoods mediating conflict. These men and women provide compelling insight into what drives the spread of violence in their city and its root cause. One of the main themes throughout the film is that the cycle of violence is rooted deeply in the structure of the neighbourhood. The film also argues that violence is not part of who a person is but a learned behaviour. It really is a disease.  Similar to someone with a family history of cancer might expect to die from it, people in these neighbourhoods expect to die from the after-effects of violence.

These Interrupters are:

Ameena Matthews, a former gang enforcer and the daughter of one of Chicago’s most famous gang leaders.

Cobe Williams, a man that was exposed to violence at a young age through the murder of his father, but turned his life around to support his family.

Eddie Bocanegra, a former gang member working to help children exposed to violence cope with what they’ve seen.

The film is both heartbreaking and encouraging. It’s devastating to see the impact that violence has had on these Interrupters and every member of their communities. Two stories in the film about the impact of violence exposure on children really stood out.

In one of Eddie’s art therapy classes, one little girl breaks down in tears because her mother won’t allow her outside very often because of the fear she’ll be shot. Another scene depicts a former gang member returning to a barbershop where he committed a robbery. He apologizes for his actions and learns how one mother and child still cope daily with the fear they experienced that day.

But the film really leaves you with a feeling of hope. Throughout the film, even though the threat of violence is still strong in the community, people are listening and working to reduce and prevent exposure to violence.

You can view the film for free here.


Trayvon Martin and Community Violence

Much has been said about the Trayvon Martin case in central Florida this past month. Much more could be said and even more will probably never be known for sure. What we do know is that Trayvon was walking home from a nearby store when he was approached by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Accounts vary as to what happened next, but the outcome left Martin dead from a gunshot wound.

However, what isn’t being talked about so much is the environment where this tragic incident played out.

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A symptom of a wider problem

Why us?

Why here?

Why did he do it?

These are the questions people always have in the face of tragedy and loss. When things like the Chardon High School shooting happen, often the public and community’s focus is on looking at the lives of the victims and understanding the shooter’s motivation, usually with the feeling of anger.  But it’s really important to make sure we remember to look at the whole picture.

News headlines are showing a variety of reasons and speculation for why T.J. Lane – for all appearances, a normal, great kid with a bright future – did something this.

Was it just random?

One report said

“Lane told police that he did not know the students, that he picked them randomly,
according to the report. But some of the students who were shot had known
Lane since at least middle school. Some rode the bus with him each day.”

Was he just an overlooked danger?

Because another one points out that

“Lane wasn’t a student at Chardon, but he went there to catch a bus that would
drop him off at an alternative school for at-risk teens.”

Or is he repeating a cycle of violence from things he witnessed as a child?

Because, yet another report mentions that

“Both parents were charged with domestic violence against
each other and his father was very violent.”

Or finally, did he just do it because of a broken heart?

Because yet, another report says that

“A group of friends close to Lane’s former girlfriend told ABC News that the girl had dated Lane, and that after they broke up, she began seeing one of the victims, Russell King Jr. Lane felt forgotten after the couple broke up, one of the students said.”

The reality is that we may never know why he brought the gun that day and shot those other teens. There is no excuse that will ever justify T.J. Lane’s actions that day, but there is an explanation. It’s vital we try to understand the root cause, and this is outlined in The National Survey on Children’s Exposure to Violence.

“ [It] confirms that most of our society’s children are exposed to violence in their daily lives. More than 60 percent of the children surveyed were exposed to violence within the past year, either directly or indirectly (i.e., as a witness to a violent act; by learning of a violent act against a family member, neighbor, or close friend; or from a threat against their home or school).”

There are two sides to every story, and many reasons that tragedies happen, but a variety of violence exposures are often at the root of these occurrences, and they are the symptoms of a wider problem. Knowing how often our children are exposed to violence is imperative, and we have to understand the whole picture of violence.

This can be done through:

  1. Continued training of practitioners and public health officials
  2. Public awareness about the problem of violence exposure
  3. Recognition of the signs of trauma
  4. Continued field research on the issue

Exposure to violence is an epidemic and a problem that affects everyone that it touches; things like the Chardon School shooting are often a symptom of this wider problem. So, what’s really important beyond just helping schools and communities to heal is to understand this whole picture of violence and continue finding ways to prevent and protect our children.

Girls and Teen Dating Violence

What Do Girls Face?

When you look at these posters what kinds of words or thoughts are going through your mind when you read about their situations on each red flag – sadness, fear, humiliation, jealousy, violence, pride, defiance, anger?

All girls could be experiencing violence; these pictures from the Red Flag Campaign show what kinds of situations they might be facing. Maybe they are being put down by a partner, pressured into sex, or even the one hurting their partner.  These girls show that anybody could be the victim – or even perpetrator – of emotional abuse, verbal manipulation, or physical violence. It’s important to understand this in order to get the overall picture of where girls fit into the issue of teen dating violence (TDV).

So where do they fit?

“Approximately one in three adolescent girls in the United States is a victim of physical,

emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner – a figure that far exceeds victimization rates

for other types of violence affecting youth.”–Futures Without Violence

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Providers Against Bullying

We know that providers are working tirelessly to protect kids from bullying and make schools and communities safer for them. To help that work we’d just like to share a few more resources that providers can tap into to help keep their efforts moving forward!

Workshops and Trainings to Address Name-calling and Bullying

This is a great resource for schools, providers, and educators to use for creating strategic plans that can make schools safer for kids against bullying.

Preventing and tackling bullying

This resource page, from the Department of Education in the UK, offers detailed advice and prevention techniques for teachers, staff, administrators, and for use in community settings.

Bullying Prevention and Intervention

Another fantastic article, originally featured in Principal Leadership Magazine, Vol 4, Number 1, September 2003, from the National Association of School Psychologists, helps administrators tackle and recognize bullying in the their schools and to stop it before it starts.

We’d really like to thank providers for their ongoing hard work to eradicate bullying at its source and to reduce violence against children!

Juvenile Victimization Questionnaire

Please check out this great new resource linked to the “National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV) [that] is the largest, most comprehensive survey on youth victimization conducted in the United States.”

The website notes that:

“The Juvenile Victimization Questionnaire-2nd Revision (JVQ-R2) is the core of NatSCEV.  The full JVQ-R2, including supplements, [and] assesses 50+ forms of victimization across five general areas:

  • Conventional crime
  • Maltreatment
  • Peer and sibling victimization
  • Sexual victimization
  • Witnessing and other exposure to violence.”

This will be a great resource to help further awareness about youth victimization as a whole and improve research!

Suggested Citation:

Hamby, S., Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., & Kracke, K. (2011).  The Juvenile Victimization Questionnaire toolkit.  Retrieved from

Community violence prevention and awareness at the local level

Peoria program helps children, families cope with violence

Exposure to community violence is an ongoing problem, especially with children, and there are a variety of agencies and individuals working tirelessly to combat it. Defining violence exposure overall and community violence can be an overwhelming task as both have very broad meanings. Community violence usually involves interpersonal violence i.e. gang related problems, assault, incidents involving weapons, etc; and exposure to violence encompasses abuse, neglect or child maltreatment, domestic violence, and community violence. This article describes the Heart of Illinois Safe from the Start Program (HOI), which, for the past ten years, has been working to help kids deal with the violence in their surroundings.

HOI finds that many of their referrals come from situations that involve mostly domestic violence and not community violence, which they find surprising, due to the level of community violence exposure in their communities. The article points out that the prevailing problem is more that there is still very little understanding about how community violence hurts children and what the long-term effects of exposure are on their behavior, now and in the future.

The 2010 Illinois State Health Improvement Plan,  is also noted, which tasks the State with improving and reducing violence, and this improvement plan should extend to a better understanding of how community violence affects all aspects of the community, i.e., at home or school. It’s important for officials and the overall community to understand the impact so that they can help increase prevention and awareness of the problem. If there is increased awareness about the connection between exposure to violence and issues like delinquency rates and problematic behavior, it could be another step in combating the after effects of the violence and can help stop the cycle from continuing.

Further Resources:

Safe Start Center Trauma-Informed Care Tipsheets

Chicago Safe Start

Community and School Violence Reading List

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