When we were working on opening New Dawn, there was many a night where I was walking to my car at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning. I never felt afraid. In the morning coming into the building I saw many of the same faces in the neighborhood and we always exchanged friendly hellos and how are you’s. We were certain that the space we thought would be a temporary location would be just perfect for us. Four years later, and we are still here, and we love every minute of it for the most part.
What I want to talk about in this blog is gang violence. When we first opened, we experienced a series of events that required the assistance of the 76th precinct. We are really lucky to have a police department that is so willing to work with our students and give them every benefit of the doubt that they can under the law. The officers that do school patrols are friendly and kind, and we feel really safre thanks to their daily efforts to keep the neighborhood secure. However, even with the best of intentions of local neighbors, school partners and the police, gang violence seeps into the community and tears kids apart, quite literally. We can do everything we can to keep our kids safe while they are in school, but when they leave our grounds, anything and everything can and will happen.
As New Dawn shares the sadness of loss with another sister school, the question that leaves us with no good answers is “when will this end?” Students are truant because of their gang activities. I look on public facebook pages of my kids, and the lifestyle is embedded in everything they do- from the street gang slang they trade to the pictures of large bills, marijuana and alcohol- are all in reverence to their gang life. New Dawn’s school persistence rate is much higher than other schools we are compared to in New York City, yet there is no easy answer to keeping kids in school that choose gang life to support their economic well-being.
I know that may seem like an quick solution, and so many gang affiliations go well beyond just making ends meet. We can acknowledge that gangs in some respects create familial relationships that may be lacking in their personal lives. But the statistics also don’t lie. In 2014, nearly 40% of violence in NYC was attributed to teen street gangs. In 2015, it was 50%. There are many studies that associate youth in urban settings, involved in street crews and having trouble at home as being active sufferers of PTSD. It is said that over 1/3 of kids aged 10-16 years of age have been victims of violence. In some cases, our kids are so used to experiencing violence, that the impact of yet another friend or relative dying from violence becomes commonplace.
So what’s next? How do we combat students in crisis and create enough buy-in to actively recruit our youth to LEAVE their crews? There is much we can do, such as to continue to offer programs and assistance as much as we can. For many of our students, the prospect of going to college away from home is a chance to break from those ties. Not everyone can be sent out of Brooklyn, however.
We are taking a mindfulness approach to our instructional practices beginning next year. In an effort to begin training staff, we have been learning how to do some simple yoga moves and meditation techniques to employ in the classroom. This is not a new age intervention. Several conferences I attended this year also focused on incorporating mindfulness in the classroom. Current research also suggests that by incorporating mindfulness into the classroom, students can learn to reduce their stress and improve their coping skills when exposed to stressful situations, such as gang violence and other situations in their environment outside of school.
While we are in the beginning stages of planning this curriculum into our instructional program for next year, it is important to acknowledge the severity of the violence in our streets attributed to gangs. As I have gone over and over in my head how to write this, the only thing that comes back to me is heartbreak. As a community, we have to come together to address this issue and empower our kids to avoid this lifestyle. So many of our kids think it’s no big deal to be picked up for smoking marijuana on the street or having it on their person. Many more are blasé about selling drugs to their friends and acquaintances. The peer pressure to do these things is tremendous. I’m not sure that mindfulness is the answer to all of our gang affiliation problems. Communities are working hard with many different programs to keep kids off the streets and safe from harm. Unfortunately that doesn’t always work. As a mother, my heart aches for the other mothers who have lost their babies to the streets. What good is a solution to them, when they have already lost so much? Our jobs as educators only take us so far, but yet, we are often faced with the ugly truth that the street will continue to fight schools for possession of our kids. I can only hope that as we continue to grow and build partnerships with other communities that our resolve to build strong college and career ready youth will be supported with programs and assistance that make that a reality.