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n a Friday afternoon in March, when Steve Morrissey opened the door to Marge Schneider's kindergarten at the O'Donnell School in East Boston, the students greeted him with peace signs. That same day, thousands of miles away, U.S. warplanes had begun dropping bombs on Baghdad. But that's not what the peace signs were about--at least, not yet.
Morrissey serves as part of a team from the Harvard School of Public Health's Division of Public Health Practice working to implement and assess an elementary school violence prevention program called the PeaceZone. Recognizing that some children in troubled communities come to school with unresolved feelings of grief, the PeaceZone helps them cope with life's losses, be it a divorce, a grandparent’s death, or a street shooting. By doing so, it opens children up to learning strategies that will help them avoid high-risk behaviors down the road.

"The PeaceZone is our effort to bring healing into the classroom," said Deborah Prothrow-Stith, professor of public health practice and associate dean for faculty development. "It's not just telling children how to behave. It acknowledges that some children are in pain." That pain can be a barrier to mastering the very skills these children need to succeed in life. "It's incredible how many kids come to us about not only the things they witness firsthand, but the things they see in the media," said Morrissey, who serves as the O'Donnell School's PeaceZone counselor. "They're almost desensitized."

But not quite. The program recognizes that children are equipped with the innate strength and resiliency of youth. The PeaceZone builds on these qualities, increasing the ability of children to make positive decisions. In particular, the program emphasizes four central skills--self control, self respect, cooperation, and problem solving--which, for many kids, have immediate applications. “It helps me to use my self control when my brother makes fun of me," said nine-year-old Mai, an O'Donnell third grader. "You just be patient. Nobody should use violence."

As they get older, the same strategies may make these children less interested in joining a neighborhood gang. And, beyond that, who knows? On that Friday, PeaceZone students from kindergarten to fifth grade spoke of the war in Iraq. The conflict "really affects the children," said LeSette Wright, another PeaceZone counselor. "They come in and talk about the President and Colin Powell and what skills they are or are not using during their peace talks." Mai's classmate Angel thinks the U.S. and Iraqis should use the skills he's learning in the PeaceZone to work out their differences. "I wonder why they couldn't just talk it over instead of having wars," he said.

It was a different war--one fought not in a distant desert but on the streets of our cities--that triggered the creation of public health-based violence prevention programs. And like all wars, the casualties included children. Between 1986 and 1996, 69 children were murdered in Boston, including 14 in 1988 alone. One of them was 15-year-old Louis D. Brown, a Dorchester youth who vowed to become the nation's first black president. As part of what he hoped would be a long public service career, he joined the group, Teens Against Gang Violence. In 1995, on his way to the group's Christmas party, Brown was caught in the crossfire of a neighborhood shooting and killed.

But the ideals of Louis D. Brown live on. His parents set up a foundation in his name and created an anti-violence curriculum called the Louis D. Brown Peacemaker's ABC program. In 1999, using funds from the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program, HSPH helped integrate the Louis D. Brown curriculum with a similar approach developed by another Boston educational foundation, Lesson One. Thus, Lesson One's Pledge for Success became the Pledge for Peace, which is posted all over the three PeaceZone schools. In short, it reads:

"I will treat others the way
I want to be treated.
I will respect the diversity
of all people.
I will use peaceful words.
I will have a positive attitude."

At the brick Fifield School in Boston's Dorchester section, a smiling little boy in a big jacket trotted up the stairway to LeSette Wright, the PeaceZone counselor there. "Hey Ms. Wright," he said. "I know the Pledge for Peace by heart!" Wright smiled. Her job is to help students, parents, and teachers here incorporate the lesson of the PeaceZone into their daily routine. So, when the students learn how to write, they compose poetry about peace. They have field days where they participate in peacefully competitive sports. Peace Scouts earn badges like Cub Scouts, not for building fires but, in a sense, for putting them out.

On that day, Louis D. Brown's mother, Clementina "Tina" Chery brought two women from the group Mothers Against Violence in the United Kingdom to Fifield. Wright led them to a fifth grade classroom where PeaceZone posters and pictures of Louis D. Brown share space with the script alphabet and a display on "Taxation without representation." After everyone settled in, the students took turns performing raps about peacemakers--Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and Louis D. Brown. Later, all three visitors told the group how they lost their sons to street violence and then asked how many students had lost a loved one to violence. About seven hands shot up.

That was one of the reasons their teacher, Georgie Chavez, embraced the PeaceZone. "It's a wonderful program for these kids to cope with what they've been through," she said. "After a while, you see kids who have just gone numb. This gives them a chance to talk about what they've seen."

One reason Chery was so interested in linking up with HSPH and other partners in the PeaceZone project is that it will give her a better sense of how her work is paying off. "For us it's a match made in heaven," she said. "This is an opportunity for our program to be evaluated." As part of that effort, Jay Silverman, HSPH assistant professor of society, human development, and health is measuring the program's effectiveness by surveying students in the three PeaceZone schools and comparing the results to surveys at control schools. He'll be looking at the incidence of depression, changes in self-esteem, and other psychological and behavioral indicators among children in the third, fourth, and fifth grades. This type of assessment is key, not only for the PeaceZone to keep its funding, but to challenge the notion that violence is inevitable, according to Prothrow-Stith. "We have evidence-based programs, which really have been shown to change aggressive behavior and change school climate," she said.

The PeaceZone has helped Kelsey "see that there is good in life." That was hard for a fifth grader with a long-gone, much-missed father and an unemployed mother with a disability. Kelsey said the PeaceZone taught her that life has its setbacks, but that there are many ways to take steps forward and "stay with your dreams." Hers is to go to Harvard Law School. She said the PeaceZone taught her to emulate Louis D. Brown, who did everything he could to reach his goal: the Oval Office. "He always dreamed and he had his life set on it but his life ended," Kelsey said. "I want to be like him. I want to keep going with my dream."

Chavez says that's what the PeaceZone is all about for her students, who--as fourth graders--were notorious for fighting with each other. "What makes a difference is that these kids have goals now," she reflected. "They have a different attitude and that will help protect them."

Tinker Ready

 

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