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by Matthew Malamud

One in two. That is approximately how many students in North Dakota’s Grand Forks County school system reported being bullied by a classmate in 2012.

Sound like a lot? It is. The rate nationwide is closer to one student in three, according to statistics compiled for the federal Web site

Public buses like this one traverse Grand Forks, spreading the Safer Tomorrows message, said Community Violence Intervention Center’s Julie Christianson (standing, far left) and Kari Kerr (standing, fifth person in).

But that was before Safer Tomorrows, a Defending Childhood Initiative project to reduce children’s exposure to violence that is spearheaded by the city of Grand Forks, its public school system, the Community Violence Intervention Center, and Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota. Today, Grand Forks schools are in line with the national average, and Safer Tomorrows continues its work to bring the rate closer to zero.

The astounding 35 percent decrease over 4 years is attributable to the eight different evidence-based prevention programs Safer Tomorrows incorporated into school curricula countywide, beginning in 2012. Each one was chosen so that Safer Tomorrows could reach all students, from children in Head Start and preschool to seniors in high school. Most of the interventions came from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s Model Programs Guide and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Striving to Reduce Youth Violence Everywhere, or STRYVE, strategy selector.

Teaming Up on Violence
Bullying is not the only form of violence children are exposed to in Grand Forks. Domestic violence is common; less so are child abuse and neglect. Violence is also in the TV shows they watch and the video games they play. The area has also seen an influx of refugees and migrants from war-ravaged countries, including Iraq and Somalia, where many children experienced traumatic events. And, then there is ice hockey, a sport revered in Grand Forks but known for its violence.

To truly make a dent in children’s exposure to violence, Safer Tomorrows takes a holistic approach. In addition to antibullying programs, interventions include programs to reduce aggression at hockey games and other sporting events, among both athletes and fans; programs to promote healthy, respectful romantic relationships; therapeutic services to help youths who have experienced trauma; programs to help youths resolve conflicts through nonviolent means; and efforts to make teachers and other frontline workers trauma-informed.

“We are approaching the issue from a variety of perspectives,” said Kari Kerr, who oversees the Safer Tomorrows project as director of community innovations at the Community Violence Intervention Center, “because we know that if we just teach individual students about violence prevention but they go home to an environment where there is violence, we aren’t going to make a lot of headway.”

Coaches were especially receptive to Futures Without Violence’s Coaching Boys Into Men program, which aims to promote respectful behavior among student athletes and help prevent relationship abuse, harassment, and sexual assault, added Kerr. “A lot of coaches said they don’t want to teach their athletes just how to shoot the puck in the net, or how to make the basket, or how to throw the football. They are really trying to teach these young men what it means to be a respectful person in general.”

Safer Tomorrows also involves a public awareness campaign. In addition to a Web site, it uses Facebook and Twitter to educate the community. It also produces public service announcements, some of which can be found on YouTube, including one about ending romantic relationships respectfully called Break Up 101. And, it advertises its services all over the community, including on highway billboards and the sides of buses.

Behind the scenes is a data-collection effort to objectively measure Safer Tomorrows project’s impact, according to Julie Christianson, coordinator for Safer Tomorrows at the Community Violence Intervention Center. “As a demonstration site, we work very closely with our federal partners, technical assistance partners, and the other sites to share successes and discuss what works and what doesn’t, so then other sites across the states can look at replicating or taking into consideration the lessons learned when they address children’s exposure to violence,” said Christianson.

In total, 40 community organizations—including the schools, law enforcement, and public health and social services agencies—and 91 people are involved in the Safer Tomorrows project.

At times, the work it takes to coordinate it all can feel overwhelming, said Kerr. “But,” she added, “we just feel so fortunate that our community was ready for this. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of meetings, a lot of communication to make sure you’re all on the same page still.”

A Flood of Goodwill
Grand Forks differs from other Defending Childhood Initiative sites in many respects. For one thing, its population, just south of 70,000, is less diverse; although, the presence of a U.S. Air Force base and the University of North Dakota campus attracts a fair number of racial and ethnic minorities. But Grand Forks is also a very tight-knit community, owing largely to the adversity it overcame when the Red River, which bisects the city, flooded in 1997, destroying many buildings, including people’s homes, and damaging even more.

According to Kerr, the flood marked a turning point for the people of Grand Forks. “We in the Midwest are very community-oriented to begin with,” she said, “but the flood opened the door for it being OK for people to seek help because we were all in the same boat.” After that, collaborating to tackle tough issues, including children’s exposure to violence, came easily.

Kerr, continued: “I also think the size of our community does help. We’re small enough that we are able to implement multiple initiatives at once, which maybe some larger communities might struggle a little bit more with getting that many off the ground at once.”

Above all, projects like Safer Tomorrows require flexibility, according to Christianson. “One of the lessons we learned is to allow your system to have the flexibility to adapt as you go,” she said, “to make sure that you are really making the most impact with what you are doing.”

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The National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention Newsletter is prepared under Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Cooperative Agreement No. 2014–MU–MU–K021 with Development Services Group, Inc. The views, opinions, and content of this newsletter do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or policies of OJJDP.