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Green Dot empowers ordinary people to take a stand against violence

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 25, 2012 - Whenever Madeline Adams hears about a murder or an assault in the St. Louis area, one image that comes to her mind is a red dot, symbolizing the perpetrator. Her next thought turns to a much larger collection of green dots representing law abiding people who far outnumber the perpetrator.

Adams wants to convince those green dots to shake off their indifference, apprehension or complacency and become part of movement to make violent behavior as unacceptable as, say, lighting up a Marlboro in a restaurant where smoking is forbidden.

She’s part of the Green Dot initiative, an evidence-based program that trains and empowers ordinary people to take direct or indirect action to discourage violence. The action might involve something as simple as taking the time to call 911 when you witness an assault, whether it involves a stressed mother slapping a kid in a grocery store, a couple arguing in a park or two young men engaged in a shoving match near a Metro train stop. When it’s safe, Adams says, bystanders might even want to create a distraction that can help to de-escalate the violence. That nobody is likely to intervene, she believes, is one reason some people might feel it’s okay to assault others.

Groups like hers have plenty of work to do in St. Louis. As of August of this year, the Police Department had recorded 81 murders and at least 1,388 assaults involving guns. Last year, 113 people were murdered and at least 1,819 people were victims of assaults with guns.

“For every person who commits a violent act, there are 40 who don’t” Adams says. “We can stop the violence by sending the message that if people do something wrong, they are not going to get away with it. The violence continues because people are turning their heads, don’t want to get involved, are afraid to talk to the police.”

She appeals to people to “shift that culture, change that attitude, one person, or one dot, at a time. The more we teach people the skills about the Green Dot, the safer our community can be.”

Adams works for St. Louis Healthy Families. Her Real Deal violence prevention program was one of six ideas receiving $5,000 grants this summer from the Incarnate Word Foundation.

The Green Dot movement itself was started by Dorothy J. Edwards at the University of Kentucky. She began the project as an effort to address campus violence against women and later expanded it to address violence in general.

Adams has taught the Green Dot strategy to several groups, including students and others at Washington University and St. Louis University. She also has brought the strategy to neighborhood groups and is now using it at Shearwater High School, a charter school for at risk children at 4431 Finney Avenue on the campus of Ranken Technical College. Shearwater seems like a logical place to take the message since coping with violence is a familiar issue among the 65 students at the charter school. The Ranken campus is safe, but not the world just outside its borders.

“Our students live in neighborhoods where a great deal of violence happens,” says Andi Boyd, a teacher and administrator at Shearwater. “As a matter of fact, since we opened in August 2010, seven of our students have been shot, and four have been murdered.”

The school welcomes the Green Dot program, she says, because it shows students how to “handle strong emotions, how to have positive communications when you are upset, how to not jump to using violence to resolve conflict and, at the same time, how to help another person get out of a violent situation so that it doesn’t keep escalating.”

She and Adams stress that outsiders should intervene only in ways that prevent them from becoming the target of the violence. Boyd adds that it isn’t enough to simply tell students and others that “it’s unacceptable to shoot someone. You have to show them how to walk away and save face and feel you are still a man, for example, when you refuse to engage in conflicts.”

Boyd, who leads a team of three social workers at Shearwater, says just getting to school without worrying about being assaulted can be tough for some of the youngsters. In one instance, brass knuckles were found in the purse of one female student. She told school officials she carried them “in case she got caught out by herself in the street and needed a way to defend herself.” She was suspended because students are forbidden to bring weapons to school.

Just as the Green Dot message can be used to change the thinking among students, both Adams and Boyd are confident that the public in general can also be taught to become less tolerant of violence.

“There needs to be a cultural shift,” Boyd says. “We’ve learned through a large campaign through a lot of years and money that smoking is not healthy. The same can happen with violence, which has become a very accepted way of life in dealing with your emotions. The community needs to band together and say violence is unacceptable.”

One Shearwater student who narrowly escaped death is Lamondria Beckley, 19, who was hit on the street by a bullet meant for someone else.

“That showed me that you have to be careful who you are hanging out with,” Beckley said recently. “I was shot in the back. My lungs collapsed, and I was paralyzed for like a month.”

She seemed relieved when a student in a seat behind her massaged her back recently as she spoke about the incident. Later, she rose slowly and limped to her next class, mentioning in passing that she was thankful that she was able to walk at all. Until recently, she had been confined to a wheelchair.

Another incident that stands out the minds of Adams and Boyd involved Catrell Churchman. In the spring of last year, he had had the distinction of joining two other Shearwater students on a trip to Jefferson City to testify in favor or SB294, introduced by state Sen. Joseph Keaveny of St. Louis, to expand charter schools statewide.

The moving sight of the three students from a school for dropouts testifying for charters was said to have caused former Sen. Jane Cunningham, a Republican from Chesterfield, to reach for her handkerchief. She undoubtedly was shocked by what happened a few months later.

During the summer young Churchman’s name turned up in a brief newspaper story. One evening in July, he was gunned down when standing in front of the home of a cousin. Boyd shakes her head as she recalls the jolting news.

“You know, it really shook people up as a community because this wasn’t a kid who got into fights. The students are very concerned about violence and want to know how to make changes. Bringing in groups like Green Dot really gives them some support.”

Safety in the city

The number of murders and gun-related assaults in St. Louis hasn’t changed much in recent years, but it takes only one incident of shocking violence to trigger elevated public concerns about safety in the city. One such incident was the recent murder of 23-year-old Megan Boken in a relatively safe corner of the Central West End. That incident was one of many reasons for this three-part series, which examines larger public safety issues beyond the shock of a single murder.

The first story focuses on the main sources of guns in Missouri and the state's gun control laws. The second part focuses on the effectiveness of police responses to crime, ranging from the once-popular Weed and Seed program to evidence-based anti-crime remedies now used by many police departments. The final story looks at an example of a community organization’s effort to show ordinary people how they can help ease conflicts, prevent violence, and promote safety in the city.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.