Bringing the Human Development Voice to the Gun Violence Discussion: An Open Letter

Irv Katz
December 19, 2012

Early Intervention and Community Connections

The human development sector has unique expertise to bring to the issue of gun violence—our appreciation of and experience with upstream solutions.  After all, how many youth have remained on track, avoided violence, avoided destructive paths overall thanks to family and community connections (including youth development programs) that put them on track and kept them there?  How many isolated and disturbed youngsters were identified and helped before their destructive feeling spiraled out of control?  Unfortunately, society reports few of these hidden success stories. 

The voice of our sector is, or should be, prevention and upstream solutions.  Many will rally to the issues of gun regulation, school safety, and violence in the media.  Some of us will join them.  But our voice—or voices—can and must bring attention and focus to the critical importance of:

  • Early identification and treatment; and
  • Community connectedness.

Each of the mass killers has had his own set of things going on, but we know that most are young, male, detached, disturbed, and have a fascination with firearms and violence.  People in their communities are often surprised that they committed such heinous acts but most can tell you that they were loners and seemed disconnected and disturbed. 

It is ironic, as we learned from Newtown, that school personnel are increasingly well practiced at locking down classrooms and protecting the children in their care when these incidents arise.  What if all the staff and volunteers at schools and youth development programs across America were well versed at:

  • Recognizing and connecting with the person in every student (every child is known well by and knows at least one adult at school and in a community setting);
  • Finding out if every child has significant community connections, including but also beyond family, such as with youth organizations;
  • Identifying signs of isolation, victimization, emotional problems, anger and detachment ;
  • Taking appropriate action when a child lacks community connections or exhibits disturbing behaviors, expresses disturbing thoughts, or withdraws from others.

Getting school and youth development organization personnel to this state of understanding and action would surely take a lot of training but, as we are learning about school safety training, it is possible when necessary and it is definitely necessary.  But it also takes clear means of connecting with parents, both in preventive ways (e.g., ensuring that they understand the importance of structured positive community connections) but also in very direct and helpful ways when signs of concern are identified.  And it will take a significant infusion of resources for professional services that actively ensure healthy connections and identification and follow through on emotional and other problems.  

In short, it is about universal training for personnel who work with youth in schools and community settings; proactive efforts by these organizations and parents to ensure that all children are connected to community in meaningful ways at every stage of development; and school based and school linked services to identify and treat children who are off track emotionally and socially. 

In the wake of Columbine, we were a part of a coalition that worked with Attorney General Janet Reno and the Department of Justice on the unique role that youth-serving organizations play in helping kids develop in positive ways and, by extension, keeping them from turning to violence.  That was and is important but we can be much more focused now that we have learned more about the phenomenon of mass violence.  We can be sharper in our strategies and we can and should assert the unique expertise and perspective of the human development community.

Let us be a voice of reason in a debate where it is easy to jump to incomplete and unfounded conclusions.   What we have to contribute as a sector is as, if not more, important than ensuring that schools are difficult to access by those meaning harm and keeping guns out of the hands of people who are unhinged and violent.   It is about ensuring that people with whom we entrust the care of our children can help us assure that every child has healthy community connections, can identify children who are at risk of harm to themselves or others, and know what actions to take.  And it is about ensuring that support services—mental health services, youth development programs, and more—are there for every child to have the opportunity to be emotionally healthy and connected.

If these thoughts resonate with you, please voice them in your own words (or feel free to borrowing any of mine you wish) to genuinely change the dialogue.  Share them with your network and encourage colleagues in your network to add stories of how keeping a youth at risk of violence constructively connected or of how identifying and treating a seriously disturbed youth prevented him or her from turning to violence.  These stories, and we know there are many, can be very powerful.

Now is the moment.   Just agreeing—or disagreeing—with this essay is not enough.  Use the power of your network and the expertise it represents now, today, to shape the discussion and influence the solutions.

This letter was reprinted with permisson from the National Human Services Assembly.

Image: stockxchange/batluck