Remember the Dead

Today is the Day of the Dead. It’s usually a positive occasion for many who celebrate a day to remember their departed loved ones. But this year I’m thinking about all of our students who are losing loved ones to street violence and the connection to our schools.

Last week, Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Dr. Linda Lane sent a letter home to every family in the district advertising the “Ask” campaign, raising awareness about “gun accidents” and “unintentional firearm deaths.” A flyer enclosed with the letter cautions that “children are curious and if they find a gun, they’ll play with it” and urges parents, “before you send your child to another home, just ask” if there is an unlocked gun in the house. The assumption is that parents are simply too embarrassed to ask this question, so the campaign admonishes, “Awkward conversations come with being a parent, but one could save your child’s life.” [Asking Saves Kids]

Now I’m all for preventing gun injuries and deaths. These are horrible things. But this campaign makes me angry. It rests on the notion that our kids are finding unlocked guns while on play-dates and accidentally shooting each other. While this is an absolutely terrible scenario, the real gun tragedy for most of our students is street violence. Actually, the word “tragedy” doesn’t even come close to describing the epidemic of gun violence our kids are living through.

And let’s be clear: this epidemic is highly racialized. White middle-class kids might be at risk of getting shot at a friend’s house with an unlocked gun. But African-American kids – and their family members and their friends and their neighbors – are being mowed down in the streets, on playgrounds, outside clubs, and in their cars. According to a report by the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Pennsylvania has the ugly distinction of the “highest rate of African American homicide victims in the nation, more than six times higher than the national average of homicide victims of all races.” [Metro-Urban Institute, October 2009]

To compile this report, researchers at the Seminary took the time to actually ask children about the impact of gun violence on their lives. Through congregations, schools, and community organizations in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, they surveyed over 450 kids, aged 9-18, and found that 79% of the children had a family member or friend who had been shot or killed by gun violence. That’s 4 out of every 5 kids. I read this statistic a week ago, and I’ve been having a hard time thinking about anything else since.

The numbers are even scarier when they’re broken down by age. Of the 9-11 year olds, 63% indicated knowing a friend or family member who had been shot or killed. Of the 12-14 year olds, 73% had a friend or family member who had been shot and killed. And of the 15-18 year olds, a full 86% knew someone shot or killed. This is not a problem of parents failing to ask awkward questions before play-dates or even of unlocked guns.

Significantly for those of us interested in public schools, the report found, “The single strongest response among this [oldest group of kids] as to how to most effectively minimize violence is through more community activities, however this age group also strongly identified a need for … better access to education.” Listen to what these students are saying. The researchers reported that, “The single most common suggestion of the youth surveyed as to how to stop street violence was either reducing the access of people to firearms, or banning guns altogether.” This was followed closely by “the request of the youth to increase the amount and frequency of both community wide activities and events, and activities and events targeted specifically at providing the youth of the community a safe and productive alternative to urban violence.”

Kids are telling us they want activities. Yet what has the district been cutting? After school activities, clubs, and even tutoring programs. The kids are telling us they want education to deal with the systemic problems of poverty and joblessness contributing to gun violence. The PTS survey even asked students about their favorite classes. No surprises here: art, music, sports – the very things the district has been cutting.

I sure hope Pittsburgh Public Schools did not pay for this ASK campaign mailing. Those are dollars that would be better spent on the things our students are telling us they need. For instance, right now the Westinghouse Bulldogs marching band has its own campaign, trying to raise money for uniforms and instruments. [Click here to donate.]

My heart aches for any family touched by gun tragedy. But the ASK campaign completely ignores the reality of gun violence being experienced by Pittsburgh students. And it frames prevention as parents asking awkward questions, rather than say, gun control (kids’ #1 suggestion).

As we remember our dead today, I leave you with this sobering thought: In one week alone recently at my children’s Pittsburgh Public School, three different students lost family members to gun violence. Three. In one week.

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