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‘‘If You Really Knew Me …”

Gov. Bobby Jindal has created a school violence study group in the wake of the Newton, Conn., shootings.

Co-chaired by Louisiana State Police superintendent Michael D. Edmonson and state corrections secretary James M. LeBlanc, the purpose of the task force is to develop recommendations for a “safe learning environment” on each of Louisiana’s 1,700 school campuses – kindergarten through college – according to the Governor’s executive order. At some point, the governor’s study group may take a school “field trip.”

Warren Easton Charter High School – Louisiana’s oldest public high school – should be at the top of their New Orleans agenda.

For four consecutive years, Warren Easton’s student council has hosted the Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE) & “No Place for Hate®” program, a unique, nationwide, student-led effort to stop bullying, bias and school violence. “We are the only program in Louisiana,” Easton student counselor Rozetta Millner says, proudly.

On Nov. 30th, 2012, students from five local high schools – McMain, Sophie B. Wright, Xavier, Lusher and Easton – participated in a day-long agenda of activities such as “trust-building,” learning about teen “body images” and the “ABC’s of Bully Prevention.”

For the final exercise, some 30 students sat in a solemn circle inside Easton’s Arthur Hardy Auditorium, named for the Mardi Gras historian. Most are black, female and well-dressed in school uniforms.

“How many of you know what it feels like to judged?” 17-year-old De’Asya Ross, an Easton senior, begins.

Nearly all raise their hands.

“How many people like it?” Ross says, reading from a script.

No hands go up.

The students then take turns standing up and speaking out, sharing personal confidences. All start with the phrase: “If you really knew me …”

The session begins with some teenage angst.

“If you really knew me,” says Brittney, “you’d know that I am not as confident as I appear to be. If you look at me, you wouldn’t know I cry myself to sleep every night.”

“If you really knew me,” another girl, “Jamila,” says, “you’d know that I get really depressed because of my dad leaving two years ago.”

Some darker thoughts surface.

“If you really knew me,” a quiet petite girl with a McMain sweatshirt said, “you would know that I cut myself when I get angry.”

“If you really knew me,” says the next speaker, “you’d know I come from a broken home; I have a hard time meeting new people.”

One youth vows to find a silver lining in life’s dark clouds.

A 17-year-old senior nicknamed “Slim,” from the Magnolia public housing development said: “If you really knew me, you’d know that I lost a lot of friends when I was really young,” including a girl killed in a drive-by shooting when Slim was only a boy, aged 11. “I lost my best friend last year,” Slim continues. “He got shot. I made a promise to him that I would keep on living.”

The group suddenly bursts into applause.

Slim hurriedly adds, “His name was Nick. He was 6! He was the best friend I ever had!” before the ovation subsides.

Another boy, Brendon, says: “If you really knew me, you’d know my uncle killed his self. I was really hurt by the fact that he did it.”

A small girl with a plaid skirt stands up:
“If you really knew me, you’d know I seen my dad got shot in front of my face.” Instead, of sitting back down, she steps away from the group and heads for the exit doors. She begins to cry.

An older, larger girl wearing another uniform from another school quietly steps up. Slipping out the circle, she catches up with the younger student and wraps a right arm warmly around her tiny shoulders.

The program ends minutes later – with a raffle. The students hug one another and amble out of the arena. Slim and De’Asya Ross stay behind to talk with a visitor. They lean on a piano.

Slim found the program helpful. “Sometimes I get depressed, and it interferes with my school work,” he says. He sees a future in music and plans to attend New York University and the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “I told everyone I would achieve my dream for them,” Slim says , including his deceased friend, “Nick.”

After graduating from Warren Easton, Ross says she plans to attend the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, join the U.S. Air Force Reserves and pursue a career as a registered nurse. Her ambitions are throttled by grief, however. She still mourns the death of a friend, Tirrell Jackson, 18, who was shot to death Feb. 12, 2012, in eastern New Orleans, police said.

“I feel very incomplete without him,” Ross says. “He was supposed to graduate with us.”

Easton development director Marcel McGee said the student-run program helps educators better understand their young students. “If you give them an opportunity to express themselves and to do it their way – that’s where you definitely get the whole story.”

“If you take care of the physical and emotional needs, then you can educate a child,” says Easton principal Alexina Medley. Students with obvious problems can get help at Children’s Hospital. Other students in the group need additional counseling that the school cannot provide.

“Where do we go to find the resources?” Medley asks. She isn’t the only school principal asking that question today.

Two weeks to the day after New Orleans students posted signs on classroom windows that read “No Place for Hate,” a darker drama unfolded in Newton, Conn.

A 20-year-old gunman killed his mother, walked into an elementary school and fatally shot six adults and 20 children, before ending his own life.

Much of the school violence prevention discussion since then has focused on the polemical debate of gun control. Students at Warren Easton seem to be taking a different approach to increase the peace at their school. The governor’s study group should visit, listen and report what they have learned. The students might be heading in the right direction. If so, their elders shouldn’t be afraid to follow.

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