We have spent a lot of time at Hillard Heintze over the last six weeks discussing how we will launch our new not-for-profit center to prevent acts of targeted violence in primary and secondary schools across the United States.  We have ambitious goals.  We’re trying to effect real change. And we know doing so will not be easy.

This is familiar ground for me in some ways.  Our focus is reminding me of my work a few years ago tackling another seemingly intractable challenge: gang prevention, intervention and suppression.  Because of my efforts in the San Jose Police Department’s successful effort to combat gangs in our nation’s tenth-largest city, I was asked to serve as a consultant for the U.S. State Department. I traveled to El Salvador, Honduras, Venezuela, Guatemala and Nicaragua.  There I led training initiatives for federal police agencies, politicians, government administrators, education leaders, heads of social service organizations and citizens regarding the design, implementation and evaluation of anti-gang programs. What are the lessons I take from this domestic and international work – applied to school violence prevention?   Three stand out.

  1. Coordination across Stakeholder Groups Is Imperative:  We chalked up hard-won gains combatting gangs – step by step – because we recognized and engaged the many different voices crucial to the root causes that drive young men and women to join gangs.
  2. Complex Challenges are Sometimes Better Addressed Piecemeal – By Different “Ambassadors of the Message:” Complicated issues never have simple answers.  That’s true for gang-related work.  .  Community policing.  Mental health.  And school violence prevention, among many others.  The Gang Task Forces that we set up succeeded – almost beyond our rational expectations – for several reasons.  But one, in particular, had a tremendous effect: we stumbled across the fact that different components of the challenge could be better addressed by one stakeholder group over the others.  And when we leveraged this strategy – aligning law enforcement with one message and one audience; parents with a different message for their children; religious leaders with another focus; and so on – we gained more ground in a few short years than we had achieved as separate groups over decades.
  3. If We Always Do What We’ve Always Done, We’ll Always Get What We Always Got: The lesson learned from the innovative cities that implemented Gang Task Force efforts was that what local police departments and government agencies had been doing to address gang crime was not working, and that to continue to do more of the same was futile.  It was only when police and government leaders stepped up to say they needed the entire community’s support to address the challenge that they begin to have success.  The same is true for school-related violence.  Police departments and school officials cannot solve this problem by themselves. It will take a collective effort by law enforcement and school officials at the federal, state and local levels partnering with leaders in the mental health, business, not-for-profit, social services and faith-based communities to address school-related violence.