Spotlight on Erie, PA: What One Community Is Doing to Combat Local Gun Violence and What Family Life Educators Can Learn for Their Own Communities

Adrienne L. Riegle, Ph.D., CFLE
/ CFLE Network, Fall 2018

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Adrienne L. Riegle

Upon moving to Erie, PA, in 2015, my husband and I were invigorated by the beautiful Great Lakes scenery, sense of camaraderie and grit (something it takes to withstand an average annual snowfall of over 100 inches—a record-breaking 200 inches fell last season), and cautioned to “just stay away from the east side of town” if possible. I’ve since heard this warning given to many newcomers, a blanket statement to avoid the violence and gun activity characterizing the city sections with high poverty and low resources. Despite these bleak realities, natives and transplants alike seem cautiously optimistic about this midsized, postindustrial, rustbelt-turned-tourist town and emerging business/tech hub. On the state’s only freshwater coastline, Erie is nestled on the southern coast of Lake Erie in the far northwest corner of Pennsylvania, nearly equidistant between Cleveland, OH, and Buffalo, NY. Once a shipping and transportation hotspot with a population hovering around 100,000, the city’s fate in most recent decades has fared similarly to those neighbors and mirrored that of larger industrial cities such as Detroit and Pittsburgh (its neighbor 2 hours south).

Erie has recently ranked among the highest on lists of racial disparities in cities its size, has incurred heated battles over state public education funding and has witnessed a sharp increase in gun violence over the past decade, peaking just as we arrived. According to a local news article based on Erie police data, while gun violence in general has declined slightly in recent years (five homicide victims died of gunshots in 2017, compared with six in 2016), shooting victims increased slightly from 57 to 59 between 2016 and 2017, respectively. Yet police data also reveal that officers responded to 45% fewer “shots-fired” calls last year than 3 years earlier (186 in 2017 down from 286 in 2015). Perhaps not surprisingly, this gun violence is mainly centered within the heart of the city on the—you guessed it—near the east side. Youth and gang-related activity seem to be the focal point of conversations surrounding the violence in these neighborhoods; however, gun-related activity remains a concern throughout the city limits.

With a background in sociology and family studies, having recently purchased a home within the city limits, and having a child entering kindergarten in the city school district this year, I was particularly interested in finding out what local parents and other concerned community members were doing considering these concerns regarding gun violence. I am affiliated with Erie City Moms, a local group that purposefully meets in the heart of “center city” to build relationships between mothers from all walks of life. When the opportunity presented itself to promote our group to neighborhood moms at an “alternative to violence” event sponsored by a congregation in a local park this summer, I gladly volunteered.

Moving beyond referrals for trauma therapy and similar tasks, CFLEs could offer program evaluation, connections with grant funding, and facilitate group conversations that bridge divides between parents, schools, cities, and community resources.

At this event I met Daryl Craig or “Brother D,” as he introduced himself to me. He is the leader of the local Blue Coats peace initiative, a volunteer group of concerned parents, some of whom have lost a child to gun violence themselves. The Blue Coats are contracted with the school district in efforts to reduce school violence. It was announced this September that the Blue Coats are one of groups that will benefit from a $148,000 grant as part of a larger state-wide initiative to reduce gun-violence. Additional recipients of these grant funds include Erie’s Mercyhurst University Civic Institute and its Unified Erie, a data-driven violence-reduction initiative, focused on prevention, enforcement, and successful reentry post incarceration or participation in the juvenile justice system. Unified Erie has held three “call-ins” over the past 2 years. These coordinated efforts include law enforcement and social services aiding at-risk teens in turning away from crime.

At the park event, Brother D shared with me some of his passion for leading antiviolence initiatives. Although he recognized that parents play a large role in the lives of their children, he was quick to point out that for many children, it goes far beyond what parents can do. He is also involved with MVP, a “most valuable parents” group that creates discussion in a weekly meeting at school district headquarters to move blame away from parents and provide them support as teens make poor choices. In his view, mothers and fathers play a valuable role, but the community also must step up and surround youth with support and education about alternative ways of living apart from gang and gun activity.

Brother D and other Blue Coats are affiliated with another initiative lead by local trauma surgeon, Dr. Gregory English of UPMC Hamot, a local trauma center. I recently spoke with him about Flipside, a program that aims to educate at-risk youth about what happens when someone gets shot. He noted that although several youths have experienced gun violence firsthand, having a loved one who may have been wounded by gun violence, many others fail to realize the full extent of the potentially fatal impact (the flipside of gun violence) bullets can have. They think you can “pluck it out with tweezers” he explained.

Nearly 300 junior high– and high school–aged students have participated over the 3 years since Dr. English has organized Flipside each month. Brother D helps to identify at-risk youth in the community. Alternatively, a local judge will designate teens who have come through the system and would benefit from this firsthand look at the results of being shot. Participants (usually in groups of 7–12) are taken into the trauma bay and brought into the emergency department. Program staff essentially “trace the path of the bullet,” as Brother D described it. Dr. English further explained that they show participants what a resuscitation involves, how a thoracotomy is performed, and what happens if they cannot save a person’s life. He described how powerful it can be to talk about what it feels like to have to tell young families that they couldn’t save their child from a gunshot wound. “The idea is to let them know that it’s no joke.” Flipside is loosely based on the Cradle to Grave program at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, where participants are guided “through all of the startling procedures that were conducted on [a 16-year-old] in an [unsuccessful] effort to save his life” according to the program website.

Although I haven’t spearheaded these initiatives myself, I encourage other CFLEs to do some face-to-face exploration about ways in which parents and community members are dealing with gun violence in their own communities. Dr. English noted that although Flipside has been effective, it would benefit the program and the community to directly measure its impact, something CFLEs could do. Family Life Educators have the skills and knowledge to bolster the efforts of parents on the ground. Moving beyond referrals for trauma therapy and similar tasks, CFLEs could offer program evaluation, connections with grant funding, and facilitate group conversations that bridge divides between parents, schools, cities, and community resources. It likely requires trips to “the east side” and intentionally seeking out conversations and relationships with people whose background and experiences greatly differ from your own. Perhaps it means teaming up with local parents and teachers to brainstorm breaking down barriers that prevent young people from making positive choices. A few e-mails sent to local colleges, think tanks, health care centers, places of worship, and law enforcement agencies could go a long way in establishing a network of key stakeholders in reducing gun violence in your own community. CFLEs are equipped with the resources that community partners need to initiate networks and further the reach of existing efforts.

Regarding Erie, gun violence is still a concern, but these combined local efforts are promising. Most recently, homicide rates have declined slightly, perhaps a reflection of that same tenacity and grit that it takes to survive hundreds of inches of annual snowfall. Certified Family Life Educators are poised to tap into local community efforts already underway and coordinate new initiatives in locales where efforts need to be established. It might start with a walk across town, in your own snow boots, for a chance to take a proverbial walk in someone else’s.

Adrienne L. Riegle, PhD, is a mom of two young sons; is involved in the local Erie, PA, community; and is an adjunct lecturer at Penn State University, The Behrend College. She can be contacted at [email protected]