By Debra DeCoster
Gunshots sounded in Dola Gabriel’s Kansas City, Kansas, neighborhood at 3 a.m. on a Wednesday last year. Upon hearing the rapid fire of bullets, Gabriel, senior research assistant for KU Center for Community Health and Development, rolled out of her bed and onto the floor, hoping that the bullets wouldn’t slam into her bedroom.
The next evening as Gabriel and her granddaughter played in the bedroom, she again heard the rapid fire of a gun close to her home. Again, she sought cover, but this time pulling her granddaughter to the floor with her.
“When I realized it was safe to look outside, I could see the young man, my neighbor, through his window sitting in his chair,” Gabriel said. “At that time, I didn’t realize that I was seeing the person who had died from that shooting. I have never seen yellow tape (police tape) up so close. I didn’t know it took the coroner so long to come.”
Gabriel lives in a zip code where statistics show that residents’ life expectancy is going down. Hers is one of several zip codes in Armourdale and northeast Kansas City, Kansas, that experience high rates of violence and, as a result, find residents at greater risk of post-traumatic stress syndrome, high blood pressure, depression, stomach problems, and physical and emotional stress. Children exposed to this violence often act out in aggressive behaviors, become withdrawn, can’t sleep, or are fixated on death.
Dr. Jomella Watson-Thompson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Applied Behavioral Science and Associate Director at the KU Center for Community Health and Development has launched the Kansas City, Kansas Youth Violence Project, that aims to study the health risks in neighborhoods exposed to high rates of violence.
Her department at the University of Kansas recently received a four-year, U.S. Health & Human Services grant that will examine the effect of the combined support of multiple organizations and agencies on youth violence in Kansas City, Kansas. The $1.6 million grant project will focus on children in grades 8, 9 and 10 and target neighborhoods in the zip codes 66101, 66102, 66104, 66105 and 66115.
Statistics show that in 2016, there were 47 homicide victims in Wyandotte County. Sixty-three percent of the homicide victims were youth between the ages of 18 and 24 years of age. In addition, fifty-four percent of youth victims in Kansas City, Kansas are African American; thirty-three percent are Hispanic.
The study recognizes that many factors contribute to these disturbing statistics. For that reason, it focuses on addressing the social determinants or underlying root causes of the problem: employment, education and access to resources and social connectedness.
The project will collaborate with multiple agencies and groups in Kansas City, Kansas working across the spectrum of these social determinants.
“We don’t want to stop anything that is in place, but we do want to be more intentional and strategic with how we can impact both youth and the community,” said Watson-Thompson.
Dr. Watson-Thompson‘s research has focused on neighborhood development, healthy youth development and prevention, including substance abuse and violence prevention.
“Ninety youths in the eighth, ninth and tenth grades in the Northwest Middle School and Wyandotte High School catchment area will be invited to participate in the study. We will endeavor to engage students in multiple and coordinated supports to get them past high school and on a pathway toward college or other post-secondary training over the four years of the grant,” said Watson-Thompson.
Kansas City, Kansas, Schools Superintendent Dr. Cynthia Lane is supporting the Youth Violence Project study and hopes that it can give the students in the district hope for their future.
“I have attended too many funerals of young people,” Lane said. “I have hugged students as they grieved at the funerals.”
Kansas City, Kansas Police Deputy Chief Tyrone Garner has helped Dr. Watson-Thompson hold meetings with local organizations and community leaders to discuss the project.
“When she came to Police Chief Terry Zeigler and the police department and discussed her project, we were on board,” Garner said. “The children are our future and we need to see them be successful citizens, graduate from college or a technical school and come back here to live and give back to their community.”
KCK Youth Violence Prevention Initial Project Partners
- University of Kansas Center for Community Health and Development
- Kansas City, Kansas Police Department
- KC United
- LEAD UP Youth Achievement Program
- Livable Neighborhoods
- Made Men
- Metropolitan Organizations to Counter Sexual Assault
- NBC CDC (New Bethel Church Community Development Corporation)
- Northwest Middle School
- Wyandotte High School
- Secondary Trauma Resource Center
- Truman Medical Centers
- University of Kansas Medical Center Department of Family Medicine
- Wyandotte County Community Corrections
- Wyandotte County Health Department