Few current students at Validus Preparatory Academy knew Martin Jackson and Nadairee Walters personally. But that didn’t stop them from honoring Jackson and Walters, members of Validus’s first class who were killed in 2008, with a march against violence last month.
“Even though you didn’t know Martin and Nadairee, everyone has lost someone to gun violence,” senior Destiny Daley said from the center of a wide circle of students, faculty, and staff who marched together to a park near the school.
Andrea Hines, who was the school’s social worker when Jackson and Waters died, said she helped organize the first march, along with the New York Police Department’s Office of Community Affairs, to honor the two students and help their classmates grapple with their murders. It became a tradition, Hines said, when students the following year told her, “Let’s keep this going.”
This year is the first since then that Hines is not working at the school. Daley said she e-mailed one of her teachers, Jamie Munkatchy, last summer to ask how she could make sure the tradition continued.
Mukatchy made planning the march, and an accompanying series of workshops, a main project this semester in “Art + Action,” a course for seniors about the role of art in social movements that focuses on global and local violence.
With support from Validus teachers and staff from BuildOn, a nonprofit focused on engaging students in their neighborhoods, students in Art + Action put wrote press releases, contacted local politicians, and got their peers to spread awareness about the day throughout the school. They also scheduled workshops by the Bronx Defenders, a legal aid nonprofit; the New Settlement Parent Action Committee; and peer mediators from the school, which has long bucked trends to favor restorative justice over more punitive discipline programs.
“Today was our day,” said Bintou Sankaveh, a senior in Art + Action. “We were the teachers.”
In a peer mediation session, pairs of students recounted conflicts and then repeated back to each other what they had heard. “How is paraphrasing helpful when you’re in a conflict?” asked peer mediator, Judith Nwkor.
Naomi, a 10th-grader, responded, “It makes you feel like somebody’s listening to you.”
In another workshop, Dinu Ahmed, a community organizer with the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, asked, “What would make peer mediation more appealing to people? What would make students in a school feel more comfortable intervening when they see something going on?”
Linda McFarland, a literacy specialist and dean at Validus, said her students “learn a lot from these wokrshops, especially the younger ones. We drill it into them often, they get the picture eventually and don’t resort to fights and violence.” She said the peer mediations she has supervised in her office are often more effective than mediations led by adults, because students “can relate to each other.”
Munkatchy said younger students learn not only from the content of the day, but from its structure as well. “It takes a lot to acculturate students to using their power, to wanting to be in charge, to wanting to lead,” she said. Freshmen see seniors running the show “and want to know, ‘What’s that about? How come they’re the ones leading and all these teachers are on the side?’”
The workshops and the march, Hines said, “bring to life for [students] the traits that the school values.” And they hit close to home. “If you ask who has been impacted by gun violence, you’ll see hands going up all over,” she said.
Hines returned for the march and joined students at the center of the circle, as did Jackson’s mother, who spoke about her son and thanked attendees for honoring him.
Students often “start [the march] in crazy high school mode,” said Jess Trane, Validus’s college counselor. “Then when they arrive and hear Ms. Jackson speak, it dawns on them how important this is.”
Sankaveh said the March Against Violence affects the community beyond the school. “When we do it, we’re also out there in the community, and people see that we support non-violence.”