News features across the United States scream of gun violence on an all-too-frequent basis. The stereotypical images of gun violence were once gang-related shootouts or drug deals gone wrong. Now they are school shootings. Grocery store shootings. Synagogue shootings. Seemingly safe spaces have become scenes of gun violence. Big cities and small communities are not exempt, and this includes South Bend, Indiana.
While South Bend has not suffered a school shooting, other gun violence is commonplace. Domestic violence is commonplace. Family and neighbor disputes that involve guns and other violence frequently occur. From gang disputes to conflict among their peers, South Bend sees youth violence across the city.
Chicago, South Bend’s big-city neighbor, might seem like a candidate to model response to gun violence. After all, it has a law prohibiting guns within city limits. Yet this prohibition is unenforced, thus ineffective – and so commonly violated that it remains a practically unknown piece of legislation in certain Chicago neighborhoods. Frequent stories of public place shootings are typically followed by politicians demanding anti-gun legislation. Chicago is a prime example of why this is not the solution.
South Bend’s response to incidents of gun and other violence has varied, some meeting with more success than others. The mayor’s office has created a division to address gun violence. The school board has implemented systems meant to reduce violence and its negative impact on learning. Other entities in the community, including the courts and police, tend to follow the trends set by these other institutions.
Meanwhile, city offices, nonprofit agencies, and the University of Notre Dame address violence and potential solutions, approaching the process from different perspectives. The city of South Bend leads many of these efforts. Policy creation at the city level has created the South Bend Group Violence Intervention (SBGVI) initiative; SBGVI is a network of many community stakeholders that hires individuals to work directly with youth to intervene when they are involved in violent situations and redirect them to peaceful processing of the event(s), and oversees grant funding to support local nonprofits in their prevention and intervention efforts with youth. Goodwill’s S.A.V.E. (Standing Against Violence Everyday) program also falls under the city’s umbrella and places individuals on the street to counsel and advise youth directly. The city’s efforts are supported by the mayor and the city council, but funding is inadequate to fully support violence prevention policies.
Housing insecurity is another issue that plagues South Bend, which research indicates is linked to community violence. Work is underway in the private sector, with the Public Housing Authority and real estate partners, who are developing properties for mixed-income residents that will contribute to housing stability in South Bend. The Community Forum for Economic Justice provides information and activism to ensure that locals are aware and participating in fair housing efforts at the local, state, and federal levels. All of the stakeholders in this work see the need for economic policy that funds public and private options affordably.
The University of Notre Dame’s Take Ten Conflict Resolution Education program has partnered with local schools and non-profit agencies over the last two decades to teach peaceful conflict resolution to school-age youth and adults. Take Ten has served thousands of youth during its tenure and has robust data that supports its impact and success. Take Ten schools agree to be “violence-free zones” when they partner with the program. Participating youth and staff pledge nonviolence in their lives and interactions. Schools like South Bend’s, however, which struggle with lack of academic success, illegally disproportionate discipline, shrinking census, and teacher flight, have not opted to create a policy that all students participate in order to bolster violence reduction. They are overwhelmed with too many other competing demands and thus, their policies are inconsistent as is their funding for peaceful conflict resolution.
The introduction of restorative justice to South Bend schools is an effort that can reduce violence and create safe and just spaces for school students. Restorative justice is an indigenous approach to justice that creates relationships, builds trust, and ultimately addresses accountability and the repair of harm. Restorative efforts have been shown to be successful, increasing student well-being where they are embedded and allowed to flourish with fidelity. The South Bend Community School Corporation has steadily increased the presence of restorative justice and has created a district-wide position to oversee its implementation. The district simultaneously implements contradictory programs, such as Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies and a punitive Student Code of Conduct. Mixed messages are conveyed to students; while some are valued and encouraged thanks to restorative approaches, others encounter punitive discipline. These contradictory policies are widespread in a struggling districts where youth violence and disproportionate race-related school discipline plague the schools.
Many agencies, schools, programs, and city efforts are headed by people who understand that economics, justice, and mental health must collaborate in order for a real impact to be made. Comprehensive policies, created by community stakeholders and funded at appropriate levels, can make South Bend a more peaceful place.
Written by Ellen G. Williams, J.D., director of the Take Ten program at the University of Notre Dame. Williams serves students and adults to help them understand the inevitability of conflict and the skills to resolve it well.