With the help of workshops and stage performances, some 400 high school students from throughout New Jersey attended a summit on violence Nov. 14 aimed at eradicating hatred, injustice, and aggression.

The students, from all 21 counties in the state, worked on plans to take to their high schools and communities in an effort to lessen the threat of violence.

New Jersey Secretary of State DeForest B. Soaries Jr. told those gathered in Trenton that most students in New Jersey probably aren’t afraid of being killed by a gun in school. He said they are more afraid of having someone spread bad gossip that can ruin reputations or hurt their feelings.

“We learn that in New Jersey, more girls are afraid of being raped on a date than they are afraid of being killed by a gun,” he said. “Jewish students are afraid of anti-Semitism. Black students are afraid of racism. Hispanic students are afraid of people who make fun of their accents.

“When you come here today, you are using your power to eliminate violence, not just the violence of a trigger, but even the violence of the tongue,” he told the students at the War Memorial building.

“If you can use your power to make your schools and community places of peace, and you are successful, New Jersey will be able to show the nation that it is possible to have not only high technology, but high morals and high values.”

Michael B. Greene, executive director of the Violence Institute at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, the summit’s organizers, talked to Safe Schools Today about the lessons learned at the summit and his hopes for the future.

“We’re really at a starting point in dealing with these issues now,” he said. “This was the second annual youth summit on violence, and this is the first time we’ve appointed a youth advisory committee. They came up with this year’s title, ‘Reaching for Peace: Youth-Led Social Change.’

“There were lots of people talking about youth violence in the aftermath of Columbine, but not enough students having the opportunity to talk,” said Greene. “These students were given the opportunity to meet to discuss ideas they have for social change and then give feedback to state and federal policymakers.”

“You all wanted a voice in resolving the issues important to you,” he told the assembled crowd of young adults, and that’s how this year’s program was designed. “You’re the experts.”

According to Greene, students decided they wanted to be involved in the planning, design, and even the assessment of programs and strategies to address violence. They expressed this desire in 14 different workshop sessions.

“Our workshops addressed a variety of issues along these lines. Some of the topics … included gun violence, juvenile justice issues, and using film or art to address social injustice. The ‘Using Art for Social Change’ workshop actually created a mural on the summit’s theme, and the film class created a short film.

“Even in the session run by adults, we included a high school facilitator,” said Greene. “I think students were very excited about the workshops, and they left with fresh ideas on topics that had not previously been addressed in their schools.”

To illustrate some of the problems addressed by the students, Scream Theatre from Rutgers University put on a skit demonstrating peer sexual harassment in a typical school setting. High school performers also contributed dance, poetry, and songs with anti-violence themes.

Frederick Marx, the award-winning director of the documentary “Hoop Dreams,” presented a film before students broke up into workshops.

As a follow-up to this year’s summit, the Violence Institute of New Jersey is offering six “peace and social justice grants” to students who attended the summit, said Greene.

“The grant proposal is to be student-written and must include the participation of a community nonprofit organization,” he explained.

According to Greene, five of the grants will fund projects up to $5,000, and one grant—related specifically to gun violence—will total $10,000. Grants will be awarded in mid-January.

Elizabeth Hults, a senior at Central Regional High School in Bayville, Ocean County, where she’s a member of a peer mediation group, said she came to the summit to work for a more peaceful nation and society. “It’s so scary. Everywhere you look, there’s so much violence,” she said.

Shannon Noce, a junior at Butler High School in Morris County, said she was active in the Students Against Violence Everywhere group at her school: “We’re having programs at the elementary and middle schools to get the message out.”

“It is my observation that young people are tired of being taught what they should be doing,” Greene said. “They want to make their own decisions. This summit gave them some of the tools they need to address social change.” n

Links:

Violence Institute at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Room 208, Building 2, 30 Bergen Street, Newark, NJ 07107; phone (973) 972-1700, web http://www.umdnj.edu/vinjweb.