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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis


Why is there so much youth violence? Academics consult real experts: Middle school students

Why is there so much youth violence

“When children are exposed to a traumatic event, including a violent crime, their response may vary.” – American Academy of Pediatrics

Hundreds of yellow sticky notes stuck to long white paper banners form a makeshift wailing wall of personal traumas, pleas, and prayers.

I don’t want to go out anymore.

Each note, drawn from personal essays written by local middle-schoolers, bears witness to the plague of violence that has engulfed their young lives.

I am always anxious and feel like I am in danger.

Gun violence. Domestic violence. Sexual violence. Media violence. Gang violence. Police violence. Neighborhood violence. School violence. Peer violence.

I cannot walk down the street.

The sticky notes line the walls of a large room in the BRIDGES Center Downtown. They are a product of a national essay contest called Do the Write Thing, organized by the National Campaign to Stop Violence.

Always thinking if I am going to make it to the next day.

The essay prompts varied from school to school and classroom to classroom, but all centered on the “the root causes and impacts of violence.”

Having to hit the ground when I hear gunfire outside my window.

“Cleary, violence takes a toll,” said Amanda Hasselle, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Memphis. “What are we, as adults and communities, doing to support youth who have been affected by violence? Clearly not enough.”

Threats to shoot me and my family.

Caitlin Caswell, a licensed social worker for BRIDGES, was part of a team of health professionals who turned to middle-schoolers to identify the root causes of youth violence and potential solutions.
Caitlin Caswell, a licensed social worker for BRIDGES, was part of a team of health professionals who turned to middle-schoolers to identify the root causes of youth violence and potential solutions.

“Some children exposed to violence learn to resolve their own conflicts in a violent manner. Others seem to become desensitized to violence and the pain and distress of others. Some retreat into a shell, avoiding people and the world around them.” – American Academy of Pediatrics

Hasselle recently joined a team of local PhD psychologists and master’s level social workers from the UofM, Rhodes College, Stand for Children, and BRIDGES to learn more about the root causes of youth violence in Memphis.

My brother shot my cousin’s dad. Now I don’t even trust my own family.

They didn’t consult law enforcement or court officers, elected officials, corporate leaders, or themselves. In fact, they didn’t ask any adults.

I have gotten so numb to violence that it doesn’t affect me.

Instead, they consulted a large group of leading experts in the field: Shelby County middle-schoolers — 391 of them from 16 different schools.

Being afraid to visit a family member’s house because of the neighborhood.

The essays were written earlier this year, not long after Tyre Nichols was fatally beaten by police officers after a traffic stop in southeast Memphis.

Police violence makes life hard.

Other high-profile acts of violence also were still fresh on their minds, including the abduction and murder of elementary school teacher Eliza Fletcher last September, and the shooting spree a few days later that left three dead and three others wounded.

The shooter driving around the city was right by my house.

“The youth writing these essays were roughly between the ages of 10-14,” said Emily Srisarajivakul, Ph.D., a professor school psychology at the UofM. “It was heartbreaking to read that adults were already disengaged enough for these youth to view it as a reason for why their communities are unsafe.”

Avoiding activities for fear of being kidnapped.

Hasselle and her colleagues got permission to pore over the student essays like research documents. They wanted to involve the students themselves in the analysis, but many of the essays contained sensitive, intimate, or graphic information.

Drive-bys killing people I love.

“We didn’t want to put the students in positions where they might be re-traumatized,” said Caitlin Caswell, a licensed master social worker for BRIDGES. She initiated the review and created the exhibit.

Nothing I can do. I just feel like this won’t be stopped.

Instead, the researchers systematically analyzed the essays themselves. They identified each mention of a cause of violence, an impact of violence, and a suggested solution.

Nothing I can do. It’s too pervasive. All the time everywhere.

Then they wrote each mention on a sticky note and stuck the notes on long sheets of paper taped to walls, organized into various Causes, Impacts and Solutions.

Pray to God.

Impacts of youth violence - Sticky notes  on wall by middle school students

“Children with long-term exposure to violence are at an increased risk for: Behavioral, psychological, and physical problems; Academic failure; Alcohol and substance use; Delinquent acts; Adult criminality.” – American Academy of Pediatrics

The Memphis middle-school students identified the root causes of violence in their lives.

Violence as a response to trauma.

Being a victim of sexual abuse

Child abuse causing youth to be violent

Growing up in a violent household

Hurt people got so much hate that they want to hurt others

Trauma from what kids go through at home and in Memphis.

Violence as a learned behavior.

Learning that violence is an appropriate or even necessary way to behave toward others.

Kids are just trying to cope with things they experience, mimic what they see being done by adults

Parents showing their kids to use violence against people who are ‘bad’

Witnessing violence at home

At school there are a lot of fights and verbal violence and my extended family fights

Violence of peer pressure and gangs.

Gangs help more than schools when you live in bad neighborhoods

Gangs stealing and bullying and shooting people

People think being in a gang will make you cooler, popular

‘Dissing’ other gang violence

Feel like the people in the gang are the only ones who really care

Violence influenced by the media.

Rappers talking about violence

Violence in music

Glorification of violence in movies

Militance in the world becomes normal

Violent video games

Violence is normalized through social media

Not knowing other ways to respond.

Arguments that turn to violence

People letting their anger out

Taking anger out on others

Quick escalation of disagreements either in person or on social media

Belief that the only option is violence

Access to guns.

Too easy to get a gun

Social media access to guns

Guns not stored safely

“Youth have been exposed to so much violence, both personally and through the media, that it is vital that they receive support to process their traumas so that they don’t continue the cycle,” said Alexandrea Golden, a PhD professor in clinical psychology at the UofM.  “The saying ‘Hurt people, hurt people’ is very true and was acknowledged throughout the essays.”

Middle school students' solutions to violence in school and neighborhoods on sticky notes.

“Children who are exposed to violence on a regular basis often experience many of the same symptoms and lasting effects as children who are victims of violence themselves, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These kids can feel emotional and physical ‘aftershocks’ for months or even years. They can relive the event again and again in their minds and be less able to function normally in their day-to-day lives. Some may become more aggressive, violent, and self-destructive.” — American Academy of Pediatrics

The Memphis middle-school students described the impact of violence on their young lives.

Living in fear.

Feeling afraid to live in Memphis

Concerns about being black and seeing so much violence between black people in the community and on the news.

Family members are always hypervigilant and alert to potential dangers

Always being cautious of my surroundings

Paranoid to even go outside

Increased school safety measures.

Feeling like school is prison

Metal detectors in schools

Regular lockdowns and active shooter drills

Fights at schools then School Resource Officers use pepper spray. I never feel safe.

I was bullied and felt humiliated didn’t want to go to school. Adults didn’t help

Losing loved ones to violence.

Family incarcerated

Injury/death of loved ones by guns

Losing family members to violence

Lost friends to suicide as a result of bullying

Domestic violence has taken away someone I love

People dying

“We need to be listening to our young people,” said Elizabeth Thomas, PhD psychology professor and Plough Chair of Urban Studies at Rhodes College. “We too often think about youth as problems to be managed rather than keen observers and engaged, caring, creative problem solvers.”

Middle School students experiences of abuse or violence on sticky notes

“Children’s exposure to violence is an issue that touches everyone—an American tragedy that scars children and threatens the safety of communities. All children require love, nurturing, and support to thrive and break the cycle of violence that affects them.” –American Academy of Pediatrics

The Memphis middle-schoolers addressed potential solutions to slow or stop the plague of violence.

Therapy and mental health support.

Mental health care for children and adults

Creating support groups for youth

Creating strong relationships where we can talk about our problems

Bring in retired teachers or therapists to talk to students

Family therapy

Providing emotional support

“Our new generation now knows the potential transformative power of mental health care towards reducing violence, and we as adults need to answer their call,” Srisarajivakul said.

Mentorship and positive relationships with adults.

Adults should create safe environments for youth to share their experiences

More intervention from teachers

Tell a trusted adult

More positive influence from adults

Talk to a safe adult

Nurturing and protective environment for all children

Stricter gun laws.

Gun turn-ins

Banning weapons

Ban guns

Not giving kids guns and drugs

Stop giving people guns for a period

Reduce access to weapons

Conflict resolution training.

Settle arguments with words

Learn to deal with anger and other difficult emotions. Take deep breaths. Walk away

Talk to peers about stopping the violence

We need to talk to other kids and help support them to make better decisions

Stop showing youth how to injure each other in the media

Harsher punishment for violent offenders.

Open up centers where people can donate their guns, bombs, weed, vapes and knives to so they aren’t used

Putting gang members in jail

Harsh punishment and consequences

Work with police

Tell if I see bullying

Personal responsibility and accountability.

Staying away from dangerous people

Not listening to peer pressure

Look after my family

Mind my business

I can control myself

Talking to your family members about violence

Talk and listen to youth.

Just talk to youth who are a part of the violence and ask them what they need.

Showing youth you care by talking

Not dismissing youth concerns and experiences

Talking to youth about their struggles

The researchers have invited local leaders from government, law enforcement, and business to view the exhibit. They are discussing the possibility of opening the exhibit to the public.

“It is incredibly important to elevate these voices into policymaking and take their suggestions seriously,” said Jennifer Renick, a PhD educational psychologist from the UofM.

Srisarajivakul agreed. “Our future and the future of our community depends on honoring the voices of youth who see and experience violence every day and taking action to prevent further harm,” she said.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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