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The Trauma Of Community Violence

It was just an average Thursday evening; I had been rushing between meetings and wasn't long home, I was kicking off my shoes and chatting to a friend on the phone, laughing about an ongoing joke.
Nikolay Pandev via Getty Images

It was just an average Thursday evening; I had been rushing between meetings and wasn't long home, I was kicking off my shoes and chatting to a friend on the phone, laughing about an ongoing joke.

That's when I heard the first gun shot. A shotgun being fired by balaclaved boys as they chased their target. I later learned they fired a shot not only into the back of another young adult but also into a 16 year school boy who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Living on a south London estate, this wasn't the first gunshot I've ever heard but it was the closest. Scarily close. People talk about a gunshot sounding like a car backfiring or like a firework, but it really doesn't. It sounds like a gun and when it is outside your home, it's frightening.

What happened next, whilst necessary, was also scary. Armed police quickly descended on the estate, Territorial Support Group vans speeding down the narrow streets and armed officers piling out of vehicles onto the street as mothers and their children scattered, running for cover.

The following minutes and hours saw the landing of the Air Ambulance, another assault on the senses, and uniformed police and medics arrive trying to offer lifesaving first aid to the two young men who had been shot whilst also trying to establish what had happened.

Over the next 24 hours we saw our community become a crime scene, whole areas cordoned off and scenes of crime officers scavenging through bins after police dogs had been set to work hunting for forensic evidence. However, before long, the crime scene tape was pulled down and the police disappeared. This is when the community are left, in shock, traumatised and confused, to figure out for themselves what to do next.

For the media, and the police, the event was over. The investigation to identify the gunmen continued behind closed doors and resources went into the estates where retaliation was expected. But what happened to everyone that had their lives upturned by this life threatening experience?

My mind was so focused on the 16 year old, due to start his GCSEs the following week. Thankfully his injuries were not life threatening and he was expected to be back at school before long. But is that the end of it for him? Of course not. Nor is it the end for the other young man, critically injured, or his family who desperately awaited updates on the outcome of complex surgery to save his life.

It's also not the end for the community; a community who are still in pain and traumatised by the fatal shooting of an 18 year old boy on the same street less than a year before. This pain is palpable, it's in the air and on the faces of those you talk to on the street and in the locally convened community meetings to discuss possible solutions to this senseless violence.

What saddens me is that there is such public outcry for more policing resource to respond to this community violence, and a call from many just to lock these children and young people up, but so little understanding of the need for resources to respond to the trauma of these tragic incidents. What also seems to be missed is that the solutions also exist in these communities; if they had they right access to resources and support.

You may notice that I have not used the 'g' word, and it is that word 'gangs' that I feel so often distorts the reality for communities in public consciousness. I'm not suggesting that this shooting was not gang related but to me this is only one aspect of violence that ricochets through the lives of the young, the old and everyone in between.

As Temi Mwale so powerfully wrote in her recent explanation of the rebrand of her organisation, 4Front Project, violence is not limited to the sensationalist media reporting of gang conflict but is endemic in the worlds of young people and communities. Not only is this violence endemic, I believe it is also pandemic. But what does this mean?

What I am talking about is violence that spreads through communities like a disease unless it is identified and interrupted and communities given the resources to properly heal from its effects.

This goes way beyond the healing of the physical wounds and needs to look at the emotional, psychological and spiritual healing of those impacted. By spiritual I don't mean religion, I mean rebuilding the faith that things can get better and that there is hope despite the lack of proof of this possibility offered by politicians and policy makers.

As the days after the shooting unfolded and responses were considered by panels of professionals, what I was left with was a deep concern and sadness. This was centred not just on the needs of the immediate community but the wider network who were feeling the pain of what had happened and in particular the schools that were expected to respond to the trauma of the children who had witnessed or heard about the shooting of one of their fellow pupils.

A recent report by Catch 22 Dawes Unit 'Safer Schools: Keeping Gang Culture outside the Gates' generated much discussion on social media about the role of schools in responding to and dealing with violence. Sadly, what was missed in this report was the emotional impact of community violence on children and the role of schools to respond to this sensitively and appropriately.

I'm not suggesting that it is the role of teachers to provide therapeutic work to children arriving at school upset, confused and traumatised, but I am calling for consideration of the role of schools in providing high quality trauma informed care that doesn't leave violence at the gates. What I know from many years as a practitioner, manager and consultant is that schools are often the only safe haven for many children and the environment in which they will act out their pain.

Schools are well versed in building resilience in children, that is the ability to bounce back from difficult situations, but what is often missed is that many of these children have spent their whole lives bouncing back and are some of the most resilient children you could imagine. What they are is traumatised and the combination of resilience and trauma manifests in many different ways which is often misunderstood. For many children the impact is a deep mistrust of adults and professionals combined with a real struggle to regulate their emotions and behaviour.

I've been asked the question a thousand times 'how can someone just pull that trigger or put that knife in?' and to me it's not that hard to understand. Exposure to violence in all aspects of life, in the home, on TV, in the media, in the community both normalises and traumatises. When analysing what so many of the young men I have worked with have in common, it is an acceptance that violence is a natural part of life, often the only conflict management tool that has ever been modelled to them, combined with a disassociation from the expected emotions that accompany that violence.

I have recently written about the need for highly professional but credible practitioners to be able to respond to this trauma and here I call for the need for these professionals to be firmly embedded in the schools that are physically and emotionally holding so many of these children. There needs to be clear channels of communication between statutory agencies, such as the police, and schools to ensure that they are ready and prepared to respond to community incidents that will inevitably play out within school boundaries but that they also have the resources beyond the curriculum to play this vital role.

To pretend that children can just leave violence at the school gates is not just naïve but is a huge missed opportunity to intercept and interrupt the violence that will inevitably spread throughout schools and back into the community.

And so the cycle of violence continues.....

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