Making Children, Families, and Communities Safer from Violence

It’s time to stop the violence . . . that is killing our children and our communities. It’s time to help each other build neighborhoods where each of us kids, teens, adults can feel safe and secure from crime. A tough task? Yes, but it’s a challenge that each of us can do something about. We can reclaim our communities child by child, family by family, neighborhood by neighborhood. This booklet explains some of the many ways you can help. You can do a lot in your home, in your neighborhood, and throughout your community.

Why accept this challenge? Because every child deserves a safe and healthy childhood. Because no community can afford the costs of violence. Because a healthier, safer community benefits each of us. Because failing to act costs lives and resources. Because our children should not have to raise their children amid violence. Because if we don’t stop it, no one will.

It’s everyone’s business

Violence holds victims, families, friends, and neighborhoods hostage. It rips communities apart or prevents them from coming together. Violence takes many forms. Assaults, rapes, robberies, and homicides are directly violent, but crimes like burglary are often cloaked in violence and cause sometimes-paralyzing fear.

Violence is not just about attacks by strangers. In about half the rapes in this country, the rapist knew the victim. In more than half the murders, the murderer and victim knew each other. Assaults are more likely between people who know each other than between strangers. Domestic violence wrenches apart millions of families each year. Child abuse, overwhelmingly involving someone close to the child, hurts more than a million children a year. Only robberies more commonly involve strangers than acquaintances.

Weapons are part of the problem. They make violence more deadly and less personal. Nine out of ten murders involve a weapon; eight of ten involve a firearm. Most robberies involve the use of a weapon, most frequently a gun. One in five children has reported taking a weapon of some kind to school, most often for self-protection against others whom they believe have weapons.

But weapons are only part of the story. Attitudes, emotions, and reactions are just as important. Without working on all aspects of the issue, you can make only limited progress.

Why go beyond protecting yourself and your family? Because violence penetrates schools, workplaces, and public spaces. It sucks the life out of communities everywhere.

Even if you’re safe from harm, violence still robs you. The costs of violence are enormous. The annual cost of caring for gunshot victims is more than $14 billion. The costs of private security measures, including those against violence, is estimated at $65 billion a year. Violent crime is responsible for much of the $90 billion a year it costs to run our criminal justice system.

Can we stop violence? Yes. Strictly enforced policies against weapons in schools have helped restore a sense of calm in many classrooms. Conflict management courses have taught elementary school children to fight less and negotiate more. Concerted community efforts have reduced or prevented gangs and the violence they bring. But these things only happened because someone did something.

What you can do
Work with your family, in your neighborhood, and in your community. Pick a place to start where you are comfortable.

Recognize that violence has many causes. Some are immediate—a specific argument, easy availability of a weapon, a situation in which an aggressor thinks violence will bring quick rewards, an anger that sees no other outlet. Some are less direct for example, a community tolerance of high violence levels, reinforced by news and entertainment media. Some are individual inability to see another way to settle disagreements, for instance. Some involve situations such as peer pressure that measures or boosts self-esteem through violence.

No one needs to confront all these aspects of violence at once. The point is, there’s something everyone can do.

The residents of Seattle, Washington, led by their mayor, have launched a citywide campaign against violence. One key element is Partners Against Youth Violence a coalition of more than two dozen agencies and organizations seeking “to prevent youth gun violence by educating the community, specifically young people and their parents, about the consequences of youth gun possession and related gun violence.” Partners include a major local hospital, crisis clinics, school administrators, several civic and professional groups, the prosecutor’s office, the city council, the state medical association, and the police department’s crime prevention, youth, D.A.R.E., and school safety units.

Buttressed by local statistics on youth homicides and gun-related injuries, the program points out that almost four of ten unnatural deaths among youth are from gunshot wounds, and that gunfire is the second-leading cause of death for area youth. The “Options, Choices, and Consequences” program has been developed using local statistics, local laws, and local experts to teach adults and teens the legal and medical consequences of illegal firearms possession and use. Several partner organizations are training community volunteers to conduct these programs.

The police department has agreed to strengthen investigation and prosecution of those suspected of selling guns illegally to youth; to investigate and help prosecute youth who illegally possess handguns; to support the youth and adult education programs; to build parent and community awareness of youth violence; and to dedicate extra prevention and enforcement efforts in parts of the city where levels of youth gun violence are high.

Washington State University has researched the violence issue on behalf of the partners and identified interventions and alternatives to violence that have proved effective elsewhere. Its findings supported the partners’ approach of using multiple strategies including school-based curriculum, outreach to parents, a media campaign, and firearms regulation and enforcement with hard evidence.

By investing time in recruiting partner organizations, identifying local conditions and needs, researching effective approaches, and designing activities that invest partners and enlist even more members of the community younger and older Seattle has launched a thoughtful, tailored, flexible initiative to address a difficult problem.

Helping self and family

Making self and family safer from violence is, for most of us, the highest priority. Work with your own children, with other kids you care about, and with teens and adults you care about to reduce the risk that you or someone you love will fall victim to violence.

Think long and hard about having weapons, especially firearms, in your home. Studies show that a firearm in the home is more than forty times as likely to hurt or kill a family member as to stop a crime. A gun in the home increases the likelihood of homicide three times and the likelihood of suicide five times. More than a quarter of a million firearms are stolen and possibly used in other crimes every year.

If you do keep a firearm in your home,

1. Ensure that you are trained and that everyone else—adult and child—is fully trained in firearms safety. Refresh that training at least once a year.

2. Make certain that the weapon is safely stored, unloaded, trigger-locked, and in a locked gun case or pistol box, with ammunition separately locked and with different keys for all locks. Store keys out of reach of children, in locations away from weapons and ammunition.

3. Check frequently to make sure that storage is secure. Follow all federal, state, and local laws about storage, registration, carrying, and use.

No one wants to see children victimized by violence. No one wants to see kids hurt others. Talking with your kids can be a powerful anti-violence weapon, especially when combined with your actions as a positive role model.

Make it clear that you do not approve of violence as a way to handle anger or solve problems.

Do your best to match your actions to your words.

Start early.

Even very young children can learn not to hit, kick, or bite. Discipline without threatening violence. “Time outs,” removal of privileges, restrictions, and similar penalties are successful, violence-free strategies that many parents have used, even with preschoolers.

Use the world around you.

As children get older, help them learn to think about the real consequences of violent events and entertainment. Ask how else a conflict might have been settled, what the angry person might have done instead, what unseen or unspoken consequences violence might have.

Listen carefully, openly, and constructively.

Letting children lay out their thoughts about violence helps them learn how to think through this and other issues.

Sometimes it’s difficult for adults to know how to react when children approach them about a real or possible danger. You may be a neighbor, an aunt or uncle, or a grown-up who happens to be nearby. Suddenly a child comes to tell you something’s wrong. How can you handle it helpfully?

Listen carefully. The child may be excited, nervous, or scared. Repeat what you’ve heard to make sure you understand clearly. Kneel down if necessary to communicate at the child’s height. Take it seriously. Children don’t casually ask for help out of the blue. Even if it’s not a serious problem to you, it probably is from the child’s view. Act promptly.

If the child has found a weapon or a possible weapon or describes some other immediate danger; go to the scene at once, if you’re not putting yourself at risk.

Get help if necessary.

Call police if you find a weapon, even if it might be a toy. Call other professionals (such as fire department, child protection services, public works department) if the situation warrants. If it turns out to be a “false alarm,” reassure the child that telling a grown-up was a smart thing to do.

Make sure that your children know what to do if they ever find a firearm or something that might be a weapon stop, don’t touch, get away, and tell a trusted adult.

Teach your children ways to handle conflicts and problems without using force. Act as a role model for them. Handle disagreements with other adults, including those close to you, in nonviolent ways. You can learn more by checking with your library, a school counselor, the pediatrician, mental health association, or neighborhood dispute resolution center.

Discourage name-calling and teasing. These can easily get out of hand, moving all too quickly from “just words” to fists, knives, and even firearms. Teach children that bullying is wrong; help them learn to say “no” to bullies and to get adult help with the situation if need be. Remember that words can hurt as much as a fist.

Take a hard look at what you, your family, and your friends watch and listen to for entertainment—from action movies to cop shows, from soap operas to situation comedies, from video games to music lyrics. What values are they teaching? Do they make violence appear exciting, humorous, or glamorous? How do characters solve problems? Are the real-life consequences of violence clear? Watch TV with your children; talk about how violence is handled in shows and what each of you did and didn’t like. Set clear limits on viewing and provide active, positive alternatives for free time.

Teach children basic strategies for personal safety to prevent violence and reduce their risk of victimization.

1.  Help them learn and practice common courtesies. “Please,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” and “I’m sorry” help ease tensions that can lead to violence.

2. Emphasize the importance of being drug free. Research shows use of alcohol and other drugs is closely linked with violence, including the use of guns and other weapons.

3. Encourage children to stick with friends who steer clear of violence and drugs. Make your home a comfortable place for these kids to gather; help them find positive, enjoyable things to do.

4. Remind children of simple self-protection rules not to go anywhere with someone they (and you) don’t know and trust; how and when to respond to phone calls and visitors if you are unavailable, how to deal with adults (or other children) who approach or touch them inappropriately, what are safe routes to favorite neighborhood destinations.

5. Rehearse what to do in urgent situations, like finding a weapon or being approached inappropriately by a stranger or seeing something wrong happen.

Help your children to both learn and practice ways to keep arguments from becoming violent.

It started in a Minneapolis suburb. Two people wondered what it would be like if, for one day, everyone would just refuse to be entertained by violence. No violent music, no violent movies or videos or TV shows or computer games. The idea grew quickly. Within a year, Turn Off the Violence Day has spread throughout the metropolitan area. Schools, police departments, mental and public health agencies, religious groups, and businesses joined in. Within three years, it had gained national attention and communities around the country picked up on the theme. No censorship is involved. Each individual decides what he or she should avoid. What emerges is thoughtful discussion of how violent messages can shape our thinking and a new awareness of the way violent ideas can creep into our daily lives.

Young people in Oakland and Los Angeles, California, realized that they could be a powerful force to educate their peers about the costs of gun violence, ways to prevent it, and how to spread the word that gun violence is not cool. Teens on Target, all of whose members have been touched by firearms violence, train others their age and younger in preventing firearms violence, work on promoting positive alternatives and opportunities, and educate adults in the community about what they believe is required to reduce firearms deaths and injuries. “Our solution,” one youth explained, “is to give opportunities to young people so they won’t even want to use guns.” Speaking from personal experience, these teens bring zeal and commitment to their task and credibility to their messages. They reach and teach thousands of youth and adults annually. The program gets support from a statewide anti-violence agency, YOUTH ALIVE!

Use news reports and other everyday examples to help older children learn how violence affects the community and their own lives. Let them know that teens are more frequently victimized by crimes, both violent crimes and property crimes, than any other age group. Help them think about the costs of crime and the benefits of prevention.

Encourage young people to tackle the problem. Urge them to find out:

1. How they can learn simple strategies to prevent crime against themselves and their friends;

2. How groups can settle disagreements without using fists or weapons; and

3. What drug-free, alcohol-free positive activities are available for teens and how these can be improved to attract even more young people.

Building a safer neighborhood
We and our families cannot be safe if our neighborhoods are riddled with violence. Research shows that there’s less crime where communities are working together. Help your neighborhood become or stay healthy.

Get to know your neighbors. You can’t do it alone.

Start, join, or reactivate a Neighborhood Watch or Block Watch. Include discussions of ways neighbors can watch out for situations that might involve children in or threaten them with violence. Consider starting a formal block parent program such as McGruff House so that children will have reliable, recognizable places to go in the neighborhood, if they feel threatened, bullied, or scared.

Talk with other adults in the neighborhood about how fights among children should be handled. Who should step in? How? Under what conditions? Make sure children in the neighborhood know that adults are prepared to help stop any form of violence.

Share information on basic child protection from this booklet or other good sources. Help each other learn about signs of drug abuse and gangs, along with where to go for help in your community to address these problems.

Agree on what a “trusted adult” will do for children in the neighborhood in case of troubling situations—being threatened, finding a gun or drugs, being approached by a stranger.

Get to know and encourage the kids in your neighborhood. Many young people say that carrying weapons gives them a sense of power, a sense you can help them get in far more positive ways.

Many communities have information and referral services that keep extensive records of the government and nongovernment groups that can help address neighborhood issues. These are usually listed in the telephone directory. United Way and similar groups sometimes operate referral services. Local taxpayer and civic associations can often provide information.

It’s smart to find out in advance who can help with such issues as abandoned cars, dangerous intersections, broken or inadequate lighting, over-grown or littered vacant lots, deteriorated housing, and the like.

A group of mothers in Richmond, Washington, decided that by working with other mothers around the country they could help stop the violence that was taking away their children’s freedom even their lives. They organized Mothers Against Violence in America (MAVIA) and began educating themselves and others, asking for policy changes and working with others in the community who shared their goals. Teenagers formed school-based groups Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE) that not only promote nonviolent ways to handle anger and conflict in school settings, but stage violence-free Teen Nights, hold anti-violence poster contests, host forums and speakouts against violence, and sponsor country-wide anti-violence planning conferences.

In Hartford, Connecticut, the city’s nine branch libraries have become part of the solution to violence problems. Each branch has taken up the challenge to become a center of positive activity for kids in its neighborhood, including acting as homework centers. No new funds were used—libraries were asked to refocus existing resources to tackle this neighborhood need.

Work together to establish safe conditions in your neighborhood—a physical environment that doesn’t invite crime or offer opportunities for violence to brew. With a group of neighbors, scan streets, yards, alleys, playgrounds, ball fields, parks, and other areas. Look with a child’s eye; even invite some children to go with you. Ask your police department or sheriff’s office if they’ll provide pointers or other help.

1.  Look for things like overgrown lots, abandoned vehicles or appliances, public play areas blocked form public view, intersections and streets that need lighting or traffic control improvements, unsafe equipment or structures, abandoned buildings, hazards in nearby businesses or commercial areas, and signs of vandalism, especially graffiti.

2. Talk with children in the neighborhood about what worries or scares them and about where and how they have felt threatened by violence. Interview teachers, school staff, crossing guards, and bus aides. Add these concerns to your list.

3. Look around to see what happens to kids between 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. Are there supervised programs for younger children? Opportunities for teens and preteens to work with children, help retirees, tackle neighborhood problems, get or give help with homework? After-school programs in many areas are located in schools themselves, known most often as Safe Havens or Beacon Schools.

4. Work with your neighbors; with the police or sheriff’s department and other government agencies like parks, transportation, public works, and highways; and with local elected officials to get dangerous conditions corrected. Recheck the neighborhood periodically at least once a year to catch new conditions that need attention.

5. Start a discussion of neighborhood views on weapons in the home, use of toy weapons by children in play, children and violent entertainment, and how arguments should be settled. Knowing that parents agree on what’s acceptable makes it easier to insist on these standards for all children. If some people hold different views, at least be clear about what rules you’ll enforce in your home and for your children.

6. Be sure you know where and how to report potentially violent situations or concerns about conditions in your neighborhood, or about conditions that could lead to violence. Ask your police department especially your community policing officer for help in identifying what to report, when, to whom, and how.

7. Consider an event that lets children turn in weapons, especially those that might be mistaken for real firearms, in exchange for public thank-yous, donated non-violent toys, books, or coupons from local merchants.

8. If there’s a family facing problems in your neighborhood, reach out in friendship and support. Sometimes people just need to know that they can talk to someone who’s concerned. Offer to take on routine chores, to babysit, to provide transportation, or just to listen.

9. Recognize that it’s already your problem if violence is about to erupt in your neighborhood.

10. Learn about hotlines, crisis centers, and other help available to victims of crime. Find out how you can help those who are touched by violence to recover as quickly and completely as possible.

11. If you see a crime or something you suspect might be a crime, report it. Agree to testify if needed.

Police in Baltimore County, Maryland, reasoned that firearm safety was no less important than traffic safety and designed a one-hour lesson plan for third graders that they now teach in 90 percent of the county’s public and private schools. Short talks are mixed with role playing to help emphasize what kids should do if they find a suspected gun (toy or real), how to resist peer pressure to play with guns, and where to turn for help. In less than one year, two children found and properly reported weapons, saying they knew what to do because of the program. Both the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence (STAR Curriculum) and the National Rifle Association (Eddie the Eagle) sponsor courses that address gun violence prevention among young people.

Terming firearms a “public health crisis,” the Policy Council on Violence Prevention established by the California Attorney General has recommended sweeping changes in that state’s gun laws and vigorous enforcement of laws now on the books. Proposals include banning the manufacture of Saturday Night Special-style handguns in the state, mandating that gun manufacturers build in or provide child safety devices on all firearms sold in the state, requiring that all gun dealers register with the local police or sheriff’s department, and launching an educational campaign to promote firearms safety.

Strengthening the community
Violence anywhere in the community affects all of the community. By working on community-wide anti-violence efforts, you are protecting yourself, your family, and your neighborhood. Equally important, community policies and regulations can boost neighborhood violence prevention measures.

Work to build community standards and expectations that reject violence and other crimes. All kinds of groups—civic clubs, houses of worship, social clubs, the school system, professional associations, employee groups and unions, business groups, and government agencies—can sponsor educations efforts, conduct forums, develop community service messages for media, and create community-wide networks to prevent or reduce violence.

Emphasize prevention as the preferred way to deal with violence. Ask what schools, law enforcement agencies, public health agencies, libraries, workplaces, religious institutions, child protective agencies, and others are doing to prevent, not just react to, violence. What policies do they have to prevent weapons-related violence? How can they help the community?

Make sure that adequate services are available for victims of violence and other crimes including help in following their cases through court, if necessary, and in recovering from physical, emotional, and financial losses.

Enlist those familiar with the costs of violence—parole and probation officers, judges, doctors, emergency room staffs, victims and survivors (especially youth), local and state legislators and chief executives, youth workers, and others—in pushing for prevention strategies and educating the public about their effectiveness. Personal testimony can be powerfully persuasive.

Make sure your community offers ways people can learn about anger management, conflict mediation, and other nonviolent ways to handle problems.

Find out what positive, enjoyable opportunities there are for young people to have fun in your community. What services are there for kids facing problems? What programs help kids of various ages spend the critical 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. hours (when the largest numbers are without adult supervision) in safe, productive ways?

Establish policies that reduce danger from weapons, especially firearms. Make safe storage of firearms a community expectation, even a law. Ensure that licensing laws are rigorously enforced. Some states and communities have outlawed sale of weapons to those under 18 or 21. Others have imposed age restrictions on permits to carry concealed weapons. In at least one state, conviction of a firearm violation can cost a young driver his or her license.

Work with police to help community residents get rid of unwanted weapons through turn-ins, “amnesty days,” and even buy backs. Join forces with other community groups and government agencies to publicize, finance, and staff these events.

Learn your state and local laws on firearms. Insist that these laws be enforced vigorously but fairly. Support police, prosecutors, judges, and other local officials who enforce laws designed to prevent gun violence.

Encourage local and state resources to go toward both prevention and enforcement.

In San Antonio, Texas, a year-long planning process brought dozens of civic leaders together and led to a 57-point plan to address crime problems in the community. Energized residents and leaders turned that plan into action, increasing services to troubled youth, involving businesses in prevention strategies, devising public education campaigns, engaging schools in teaching conflict management and mediation skills, and more. The city, within a year after implementation had started, saw a 20 percent drop in reported crime.

The Missing Peace, Inc., a community-based group that encompasses the entire Washington, DC, metropolitan area, has conducted gun turn-ins throughout the area in cooperation with the region’s police departments and sheriff’s offices. Providing a way for people to dispose safely of unwanted firearms not only reduces risks of accidents, thefts, and assaults; each weapon turned in results in $25 donated by a local business alliance to the local children’s hospital’s division of child protection.

In Oklahoma, parents can be fined if their child brings a weapon to school. In North Carolina, failure to store firearms safely in homes where children are present can result in prosecution and fines. Twenty-one states have enacted laws mandating gun-free school zones and imposing sharply increased penalties for firearms possession or use in such areas. Florida and Maryland are among the states that have set up special statewide organizations to help address school-related violence, including gun use. More than two dozen states have increased judicial or prosecutorial discretion to try youth involved in especially violent offenses as adults.

Insist that local law or regulations require that confiscated or surrendered weapons be melted down rather than auctioned off or sold to dealers.

Make sure that local laws mandate the most secure possible storage of any firearm stored in a private home.

Use Crimestoppers, a similar hotline system, or even 911 to encourage reporting of illegal weapons.

Reach out to educate the whole community about ways to stop or prevent violence. Find out what’s going on now and support it. Help start what’s needed. Some ideas:

1. Promote public service advertising that offers anti-violence programs and services. Get several groups to cooperate in this effort. Include programs to help kids headed for trouble.

2. Develop and distribute widely a directory of community anti-violence programs and services. Get several groups to cooperate in this effort. Include programs to help kids headed for trouble.

3. Help spread the news about available violence prevention training and programs through groups you belong to, your workplace, and other local institutions. Invite speakers on violence prevention to talk to your club or organization.

4. Participate in public forums that allow residents to talk with elected and appointed leaders about violence prevention needs.

Work with business groups and individual businesses to develop workplace violence prevention programs that include employee training, anti-violence procedures, and physical security measures. Have explicit, written policies about possession of firearms in or on the worksite.

Talk with school personnel, juvenile officers, and youth workers to find out the nature and extent of gangs or “wanna-be” groups in your community. Support gang prevention and intervention programs. Volunteer to help keep kids out of gangs.

Work with schools, colleges, employers, civic and social clubs, religious organizations, and professional associations to create the widest possible array of resources to discourage violence. Make sure that services are accessible to those who need them most, consumer-friendly, and confidential if necessary.

Put anti-violence policies in place in your state or community through laws or regulations. Weapons control policies can include ammunition taxes, safe storage laws, ownership restrictions, laws limiting weapons in public places, zoning requirements for firearm sales, and more.

Talk with school administrators about anti-violence policies and particularly about policies to reduce possession of weapons in or near schools. Your community may want to establish gun-free zones around schools or parks.

Urge adoption of anti-violence courses that help children learn ways to manage anger without using fists or weapons. Second Step, from The Committee for children, Resolving Conflict Creatively, from Educators for Social Responsibility, and We Can Work It out!, created through Teens, Crime, and the Community, are only three of many such courses.

Enlist children from elementary grades to senior high in solving the violence problems in the school and community. Encourage them to teach violence prevention to younger children, reach out to educate peers, work with adults on community-wide problems, and identify and tackle community conditions that they are concerned about. In Kansas City, Missouri, police selected an 80-block area hard-hit by gun violence for specialized enforcement. In this area, which had a gun homicide rate 20 times the national average, a specially trained group of police dedicated their energy to checking for firearms in the course of their duties. They worked 7:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. seven days a week.

Careful attention was paid to ensuring that residents’ constitutional rights were protected. Results were dramatic—gun seizures increased by 64 percent; gun-related crime dropped 49 percent. There were no increases in crime in the surrounding area and there was no similar drop in crime in a comparable area elsewhere in the city.

Civic leaders in Mobile, Alabama, concerned about sharp increases in weapons incidents in schools, conducted a campaign in 1992 to educate the community and get weapons out of the hands of kids. “Kid With a Gun? Call 911” used billboards, bumper stickers, news stories, and public transit ads to highlight the consequences of youth handgun possession and remind adults of their responsibility for children’s and the community’s safety. Law enforcement authorities agreed to respond immediately to any call about a kid in possession of a gun.

ADT Security Systems, Inc., has provided “panic alarms” for women severely threatened by domestic violence. In participating communities, local officials determine those women at greater risk, and ADT places the alarms in the women’s homes. Using the alarm immediately summons help to deal with the abuser. Participating women must have court orders of protection and must agree to prosecute the offender to the fullest extent of the law. The AWARE program is free to participating communities.

Volunteer to mentor young people who need positive support from adults. Programs ranging from Big Brothers and Big Sisters to Adopt-a-School include mentoring as a central ingredient.

Protect domestic violence victims (and their children) through policies as well as laws that offer them prompt and meaningful response to calls for help and appropriate legal recourse.

Work with others in your community to develop comprehensive, coordinated plans that direct civic resources to deal with immediate symptoms of violence, help neighborhoods strengthen themselves, and work on problems that cause violence. Enlist all kinds of groups; compare notes to avoid duplicating efforts and to benefit from each other’s know-how.

For more information:

Jackie Aker
Media Manager
National Crime Prevention Council
1700 K Street, NW
Second Floor
Washington, DC 20006