Stopping the Cycle of Youth Violence in the District of Columbia. (State and Municipal Management)

By Catlaw, Thomas J. | The Public Manager, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Stopping the Cycle of Youth Violence in the District of Columbia. (State and Municipal Management)


Catlaw, Thomas J., The Public Manager


How a bold new program is working to build relationships among students by constructing bridges across the DC government, and the nonprofit and private sectors.

When 17 year-old seniors Andre Wallace and Natasha Marsh were gunned down in February 2000, it brought the count of District of Columbia students murdered since the start of school that September to 15. They were the 22nd and 23rd youth homicides in a year. But this time something seemed different; this time, somebody actually seemed to notice. Wallace and Marsh's murders drew widespread and consistent media coverage on local television and in newspapers. And at an emergency student town hall meeting called shortly after the killings, amidst the anguished grieving for the loss of Andre and Natasha, angry students and parents wanted to know why. Why did these deaths garner headlines while so many of their friends had died in virtual anonymity? Why did scores of young people's deaths seem irrelevant to the media, to the schools, to the city? A parent of a murdered student said, "It is appalling that 15 of our children had to die for it to get this point. I, myself, feel slighted by the city." (1) As student aft er student approached the microphone and testified to feeling ignored and neglected, and, above all, to be hurting, it became clear that it was not merely press coverage that had been wanting.

In the days following the murders, The Washington Post editorialized that the shootings were indicative of a larger community problem of violence, and asked, "So what is the 'larger community's' response? City leaders--political, business, labor, religious, and community--must do more than decry the shootings and express sympathy to the victims' families." (2) The encouraging news is that the community of Washington, DC has indeed begun to respond to the immediate needs of its youth. It has launched an innovative initiative that represents the very best of community-based response, intragovernment cooperation, and public-private partnership. The initiative is the "Helping Youth Cope with Crime and Violence in DC Public Schools" program, and it is the product of the collaborative work of the Interagency Task Force on Youth Grief, Loss, and Healing and the inspired leadership of Phyllis Anderson.

Listening to Youth--The Leadership of Phyllis Anderson

The emotional and administrative force behind the creation of the interagency task force is Phyllis Anderson, liaison for the superintendent of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) to the Board of Education. Anderson lost her own son to street violence in 1992. Recalling that first youth town hall meeting, she says:

[The students] came to the microphone, [and] reiterated over and over--nobody listens to them, talks to them, and how they were hurting. And I just couldn't sleep that night. I actually went home and cried. You know, that all these children around our city are going through all of this grief and nobody's talking to them. So, I mentioned to the superintendent that I couldn't move, I couldn't take another step forward, until we do something [sic]."

As it happened, Anderson had just begun the Program for Excellence in Municipal Management (PEMM), the District of Columbia's certified public manager program run through The George Washington University Center for Excellence in Municipal Management (CEMM), itself the result of a novel public-private partnership. A major part of PEMM is the design of a government reform project. With the assistance of CEMM faculty, participants learn how to identify and analyze a specific program or organizational problem, and to develop and implement a change plan. The guidance and structure that the program gave Phyllis Anderson were invaluable in seeing the project through from idea to implementation.

With the support of the superintendent, Anderson convened a meeting of the key actors in the city--District government agencies, private sector, and the religious community--that work with youth. …

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