Yalies teach nonviolence in New Haven schools

When 12 New Haven middle school students gathered in a classroom during their spring break were asked to define peace, their response was unanimous.

“Peace is being able to go outside and feel safe, not hear gunshots and to not lose another family member,” one seventh grade student said.

In the wake of two local shootings around New Haven last month, New Haven Public Schools reached out to several nonprofit organizations to run nonviolence programming. Teaching the Peace Initiative (TPI), a Dwight Hall provisional member organization that runs antiviolence curricula in schools across the country, was tasked with creating a modified curriculum that volunteers could teach to middle and high school students over a period of four hours during spring break, said Fish Stark ’17, executive director of TPI.

Throughout the week of New Haven Public School’s spring break, Yale volunteers visited Troup, Hillhouse and Wexler-Grant schools, leading students in a condensed version of TPI’s curriculum. The discussions first prompted students to form their own definitions of peace and identify reasons why nonviolence is important.

Volunteers then led students to identify peaceful ways to resolve common conflicts. Finally, students were given the opportunity to “teach the peace” by guiding their classmates through a similar exercise.

“This is substantially different from what we usually do,” Stark said, adding, “There’s never a constant to what we do because we’re always encouraging our chapters to be flexible.”

TPI usually teaches a month-long curriculum to high school students, leading them in discussions about creating their own definitions of peace, which they then use to teach other students, Stark said. The volunteers usually also play a more passive role in teaching, letting students dominate the majority of classroom discussion, he said, adding that time constraints forced volunteers to steer classroom discussions.

TPI’s goal is to encourage students to spread the message of peace to their peers, Stark said, adding that training students to teach other students is the most effective way to spread their message of nonviolence.

“When it comes from us in the ivory tower, no one cares what we have to say,” Stark said.

Volunteers originally planned to teach mostly high school students how to teach the peace to the middle school, said Liza Rodler ’17, a volunteer for TPI. However, volunteers found themselves teaching middle school students, who then taught children from the elementary schools.

TPI is just one of several local initiatives that have gained momentum in the past few weeks after two teenage boys were killed, separately, in the city’s most recent homicides. Just six days after 16-year-old Torrence Gamble’s death, Mayor Toni Harp gathered leaders like New Haven Police Department Chief Dean Esserman and Public Schools Superintendent Garth Harries ’95 to address the community on the topic of violence and to launch a mentoring and canvassing campaign in an effort to prevent local youth from succumbing to the city’s pervasive gang culture.

Harries also mandated that six schools remain open during their scheduled April break to provide a safe-haven for local students during the recess. TPI was active in schools during this stretch, a move that NHPS Spokeswoman Abbe Smith said the department was “thrilled” about.

Jennifer Huebner, a former NHPS teacher, has been lobbying for local officials to add an antiviolence component to the existing public school curriculum and has offered her personal support to TPI.

“Nonviolence has to be taught,” she said. “I don’t think it’s inherent in the human being. When you raise children, you need to … give them tools to learn how to stay alive and not hurt anybody.”

Huebner added that, during her approximately 30 years as a teacher in the Elm City, schools taught lessons on sexual health, peer pressure and drug use, but avoided the issue of violence, despite its historical prevalence in New Haven.

She currently works with PeaceJam, an international youth-mentoring program supported by a group of Nobel Peace Laureates, but continues to find ways to generate momentum for the antiviolence movement. Stark has shown a level of commitment that she said will serve TPI well and could stir up more of a response than she has been able to generate since she retired.

“[The antiviolence movement] has just not grown enough yet,” Huebner said. “But I still have this burning desire. That’s why I took Fish and introduced him to all the people I’ve found. He’s making some headway because he has all that energy.”

While he would like to see TPI hold a permanent place in New Haven Public Schools, Stark said that TPI does not yet have definite plans to open chapters in the Elm City. Integrating TPI successfully into New Haven requires a significant amount of community buy-in, he said.

TPI was founded in 2011 and runs chapters in over 10 states.

Correction: April 28

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the two shootings had taken place in Hamden schools. 

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