Skip to main content.

In neighborhoods where violent killings are common, children and teens are struggling to cope

In neighborhoods where violent killings are common, children and teens are struggling to cope

Picture of Jerome Campbell
[Image by Chris Yarzab via Flickr.]

In March 2015, 15-year-old Keshawn Brooks was stabbed to death outside of Stephens Middle School in Long Beach by a classmate just as school let out. After the stabbing, the school hired counselors to provide services at the school for a week. Then school resumed as normal. For almost a year, a small memorial to Keshawn stood at the end of the block.

In a county with over 80 school districts, hundreds of homicides occur around schools. And each year, students pass memorials of homicide victims on their way to school. Many never knew the name of the victim, yet in some neighborhoods students can recount the number of homicides on two hands.

While many act unaffected by the violence, medical experts say the mere knowledge of killings can cause students to experience their own trauma and lose their sense of safety.

Children who develop an expectation of danger can become paranoid and skip school as a way to avoid any looming threat. Those who do attend class can exhibit developmental and psychological issues in the classroom.

As children and teens grow mental faculties to process complex emotions, the experience of trauma can alter their development, trauma counselors say. Their young bodies are still growing and the mental burden of trauma can shape their brains into patterns that hinder their performance in school and social life.

Moreover, the experience of trauma can lead to explosive behaviors in classrooms, where teachers struggle to handle underlying issues. At home, frustrated parents struggle to address their children’s needs. The students, in turn, often end up without guidance and fall behind.

In the wake a series of school shootings and mass killings, the shock around childhood trauma has elevated the conversation to a national level. However, in communities with high rates of homicides, the traumatization of children is treated as an intrinsic part of their neighborhoods.

In my reporting, several have ascribed this dismissing thought to a sense of powerlessness and inability to provide explanation. Parents, teachers, and students have explained what they have seen and heard but have not been able to connect the dots of their experiences. Through the 2017 California Data Fellowship, I want illustrate what people are already seeing in their communities and help give context to support their claims.

With the help of homicide data from the Times’ Homicide Report and other available public data, I will be able illustrate how violent killings frequently intersect with school zones as well as how school safety routes address those concerns.

I also want talk about how students come to understand violence in their neighborhoods and what actions they take to ensure their safety. When children struggle to comprehend violence, social workers say they develop their own coping mechanisms. Unfortunately, such strategies are often not healthy and alienate people around them. I hope to explore how youth create “safe spaces” by helping them to tell their own stories and experiences. I also plan to detail how parents and educators realize their roles and limitations in the process.

[Image by Chris Yarzab via Flickr.]


The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 National Fellowship will provide $2,000 to $10,000 reporting grants, five months of mentoring from a veteran journalist, and a week of intensive training at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles from July 16-20. Click here for more information and the application form, due May 5.


Follow Us



CHJ Icon