Tackling Gun Violence And the Scars It Leaves

Kenneth Barnes formed the anti-violence group Reaching Out to Others Together after his son, Kenneth Barnes Jr., was killed in a robbery in 2001.
Kenneth Barnes formed the anti-violence group Reaching Out to Others Together after his son, Kenneth Barnes Jr., was killed in a robbery in 2001. (By Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)
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By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 11, 2008

When activist Kenneth Barnes gives speeches decrying gun violence, he typically asks audience members to raise their hands if a family member or friend has been a victim. The response is usually about 5 percent of his adult crowds. But when he speaks to Prince George's County and District students, most raise their hands.

In recent months, Barnes's nonprofit organization completed a more formal three-year survey of youths that not only backs up his observations with hard data but paints a portrait of such pervasive exposure to gun crime that it startled even Barnes, as well others who deal with violence. The survey depicts an urban D.C. environment where 80 percent of youths are "highly exposed" to gun violence and, more importantly to Barnes, few are offered help coping.

"We're trying to coin the phrase 'current traumatic stress disorder,' " Barnes said, referring to many youths' ongoing exposure. The lack of grief counseling or therapy, Barnes said, predisposes survivors to anti-social and violent activity.

Faced with such an environment, Barnes believes that only a broad solution that addresses that environment can reduce gun violence. So for months, he has used preliminary data from the survey to push for a national campaign that would take a more comprehensive approach to preventing gun violence and treat the response to survivors as a public health issue. His efforts have resulted in a bill being introduced in Congress that would establish five pilot projects in violent areas of such places as the District and Prince George's.

Barnes formed his anti-violence group, Reaching Out to Others Together, after the September 2001 slaying of his son, Kenneth Barnes Jr., in a robbery on U Street NW.

The one-page survey was completed by 1,512 students ages 9 to 19 from at least 18 predominantly black middle and high schools in the District, as well as youths at Boys and Girls Clubs and other venues.

According to preliminary results, 80 percent of the respondents were "highly exposed" to gun violence, meaning a loved one had been shot or the sound of gunshots is common in their community, and of that 80 percent, 67 percent reported that they received no form of counseling or therapy. The survey also included Prince George's youths; numbers for them had not been finalized, but Barnes said they were similar to those for D.C. respondents.

The number of students exposed to violence is astonishing, even for Ann Brogioli, a social worker at Hart Middle School in Southeast Washington, where students who repeatedly witness such losses -- and sometimes see shootings or bodies -- can act up in class, become withdrawn or, worse, grow numb to violence, she said.

"I could do full-time grief counseling at my school. It's probably a full-time job at every school across the city," Brogioli said. "It's the layers of trauma and constant trauma."

Brogioli believes many children receive some help but might not recognize it.

Exposure to violence is a part of Washington life for Wanda Hill, 17, of Ledroit Park, whose cousin was fatally shot in the head a month ago while sitting in a car in Southeast. She often hears gunfire near her house. She said she has received no counseling.

"People die every day," Hill said. "I'm used to it. I live in D.C."

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