Dwyane Smith

I was disheartened to learn of yet another death of a black child due to gun violence. Though I did not personally know eight-year-old Jurnee Thompson, who was one of the latest victims, her senseless demise touched me deeply.

I am a product of the Westside/Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood. The restaurant where Jurnee was killed was the local place that for decades many Soldan High School students, including myself, went after a football game. Growing up, Cabanne Branch Library, situated right next to the restaurant, was my second home. According to news reports, Jurnee lost her life just spending time with her family after a football game.

The loss of Jurnee and the other children to gun violence is all the more profound in that a majority of them were simply just being children – playing, standing in front of their homes, and out with siblings or caretakers. Their deaths leave behind grieving parents, friends, and schools reeling with another incomprehensible loss. 

Sadly, St. Louis is not alone in the increase of deaths of children due to gun violence. It is sobering to realize that across the nation, African-American children, specifically African-American boys, lead all ethnic groups in being the victim of this type of violence. Studies suggest that African-American children are more likely to be a victim of gun violence than their racial peers. Of the recently reported gun deaths of children in the St. Louis region, 100 percent were African-American. 

What is not discussed much in these tragedies are the long-term effects of gun and other types of violence inflicted upon African-American children. There is a misunderstanding that African-American children are more resilient than others and that they will eventually get over the persistent trauma of the violence to which they have been victimized or witnessed. While African-American children possess what appears to be indomitable grit, they are still children at a critical developmental stage.

Constant exposure to violence and trauma has severe negative consequences. Research indicates that these children will suffer the long-term effects of violence, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anger, aggressive tendencies, depression, helplessness, a numbing  and acceptance of future violence, internalization of the nihilistic aspects of their environment, being detached and uncaring, and becoming violent themselves. Studies also posit that as these children mature into adulthood, they may have a myriad of issues to contend with and, in all likelihood, will suffer from emotional and mental health challenges, drug and alcohol abuse, risky behavior and crime. 

However, there are those children who, in spite of their environments, do thrive and rise above the trauma of violence.

St. Louis is really a tale of two cities in which publications tout the city as one of the best in the U.S. with a thriving arts and sports scene. It then becomes all too easy to be dismissive and believe this is an issue only in certain zip codes and comforted with the belief that overall the region is faring well. However, how great can a city be when you have some of its most vulnerable citizens – its children – having the same environmental challenges as a child in a war-torn foreign country? This irony is not lost on those outside St. Louis viewing our region.

The region must examine gun violence in our communities as a health crisis with severe implications for years to come. We must marshal our resources, the sheer will and the courage to confront this problem at its core. 

As interim president of Harris-Stowe State University, I am firmly committed to having our institution provide a platform where the difficult challenges that confront our city can be tackled. In the very near future, we will convene a symposium on the impact of violence on children with the outcome to create a solution-based framework. This will be one of many events and activities planned this academic year to challenge, inspire and move the region towards action.

Harris-Stowe State University historically has been on the vanguard as an institution of higher learning, providing access to higher education to a diverse group of individuals and transforming lives. Healthy communities produce healthy citizens, which in turn produces a thriving city. Our children deserve this. 

Dwayne Smith is the interim president of Harris-Stowe State University and a Fulbright Scholar.

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