Original art by Demetrius Howell

Shots Fired: Understanding Gun Violence in Mansfield

This is the final installment in a nine-part series focused on gun violence and possible ideas to address this issue in Mansfield. Links to the previous parts of the series may be found at the end of this piece.

MANSFIELD — In times of adversity and stress, advice to “stay positive” can seem flippant at best and insensitive at worst. 

However, it turns out positive thinking can be a powerful psychological force. It’s why Mansfield City Schools Superintendent Stan Jefferson believes strongly in leading with hope. 

“When individuals have hope, they have high levels of perseverance, and they will keep fighting when they feel there is a chance,” Jefferson said. 

His theory is backed by an experiment conducted by scientist Curt Richter in the 1950s. Richter placed rats into buckets of water and timed their ability to swim. The first group lasted an average of 15 minutes in the bucket before drowning. 

But in a second experiment, Richter rescued the rats when they began to stop swimming. He dried them off and gave them a short period of rest before putting them back in the water. 

These rescued rats, after realizing they were not doomed and there might be a helping hand at the ready, then swam for nearly 60 hours. 

This study is cited often by psychologists as evidence of the power of hope. Jefferson believes it is an important ingredient to effective leadership, especially for young people. 

“We as a school district have to say to our students, you can be anything you want to be,” he said. “Ultimately, what they need to know is we’ve got their back.” 

“We should be trying to find every opportunity to give (students) hope.” — Stan Jefferson, Mansfield City Schools superintendent

Stan Jefferson addresses Mansfield City Council

A message of hope in Mansfield is especially relevant for local youth. The Mansfield Police Department has investigated nine homicides in 2023, the majority of the victims being under the age of 30. It is the most homicides the city has experienced in one year in at least the last decade. 

Studies show that prolonged exposure to this kind of violence and stress can affect a young person’s resilience and lead to uncertainty about their future. 

It has taken its toll on students in Mansfield, according to Brad Strong, president of the Mansfield School Employees Association (MSEA) and sixth grade teacher at Malabar Intermediate. 

“Some of these young people we’ve had funerals for are former students of mine. Kids that went to Mansfield City Schools,” he said. “The things our kids have seen and are living through, we have never, ever seen. And they don’t know how to respond properly. They’re living their lives in this trauma.

“Sixth graders should be worried about goofy (stuff), not about surviving.” 

The question now, Strong says, is what can be done about it? 

“Right now we’re at a tipping point,” he said. “What’s going to happen? How do we stop this violence?” 

Teaching Peace

For Jefferson, the answer is simple. 

“We should be trying to find every opportunity to give them hope,” he said. “We should not underestimate our youth because they can learn, unlearn and relearn very quickly. And they can do the same thing with hope.” 

The impact of teaching peace is not to be understated, according to The Peace Alliance, an organization whose mission is to transform systems and public policy toward a culture of peace. 

The organization believes bringing conflict resolution curricula with tools such as social and emotional learning, communication techniques, restorative processes, and mindfulness can drastically affect challenges facing youth.

“It seems only logical that our nation invest more heavily in prioritizing basic social and emotional learning, conflict resolution education, and peacebuilding skills woven into our core school curriculum to help turn the tide,” said Matthew Albracht, co-founder of The Peace Alliance, in a 2015 column for Huffpost

In West Philadelphia High School, leaders implemented a restorative discipline program that emphasized building relationships and conflict resolution instead of punishment. Incidents of assault and disorderly conduct dropped more than 65 percent within two years. 

But Eric Braxton, a longtime advocate for high school reform, said in a 2009 article for Chalkbeat Philadelphia that the real story at West is not that a heroic principal came in to save the day. It’s that significant culture change is a prolonged and difficult process.

Besides having enough money to support that kind of work, he said, “It’s about an administration that respects and supports its staff, a bunch of innovative programs and engaged students and community members.”

Peace on My Block

In Mansfield schools, lessons of hope have come hand-in-hand with lessons about peace, thanks to the district’s new Peace on My Block initiative. 

The program was first conceived by Brigitte Coles and Angel Singleton of We ACT, a local organization created in 2015 with the purpose of responding to community needs. Coles said the first discussions came in spring 2022 amid concerns of local youth being involved in violence and gangs. 

“We thought if the community would take a stand and make a promise to have Peace on My Block and work at bringing their neighborhoods together with a pledge, signs and banners, this would encourage youths to make a positive impact in the community or the block they’re from or represent,” Coles said.

The idea didn’t take off at the time; then came 2023 and an increasing number of homicides in the Mansfield community. Coles and Singleton pitched the initiative to Jefferson and Board of Education president Renda Cline. 

“We felt maybe the school district could implement Peace on My Block, helping youths develop skills to solve conflicts in nonviolent ways, teaching students how to be empathic and responsible,” Coles said.

“The youths would in turn use those skills to build peace in their community, with their peers, teachers, and family members,” she continued. “The goal would be the students learning the impact of their actions; their positive actions create peace in my classroom, peace among my peers, peace in my family and peace in my community.” 

“We as adults must be the change for what our youth must see.” — Stan Jefferson, Mansfield City Schools superintendent

The district has since gone all-in on the initiative, beginning in March. Signs went up both inside and outside the building. Shirts were ordered. The Peace on My Block pledge lives on the district’s website. Jefferson even wears a silicone wristband with the name.

He has also presented Peace on My Block and received endorsements from a number of community organizations, including the Mansfield Police Department, the Richland Area Chamber & Economic Development, the North End Community Improvement Collaborative, and the Mansfield Ministerial Alliance. 

“The schools and community are one. They are seamless. When you see one, you see the other. So we must be tied together as one,” Jefferson said. “We as adults must be the change for what our youth must see.”

Peace in the Classroom

The initiative has also been implemented on a micro level by Strong and the MSEA. Instead of bringing peace to an entire block, Strong is focused on bringing peace to the schools and the classroom. 

Every Wednesday, teachers in the MSEA union speak to their students about peace. They also wear coordinating red shirts — representing the blood spilled in the Mansfield community, Strong said. 

“You don’t get that back,” he said. “We want to really make sure we understand that their blood is on us. How can we do something to stop this?”

Many conversations that Strong has with young people revolve around social media, he said. In his 30 years as an educator, Strong said social media has been the biggest culture change he’s observed. 

“I teach sixth grade and the amount of kids who are dealing with social media issues is absolutely unprecedented,” he said. 

“It’s destroying young people’s lives. Developmentally their brains aren’t developed enough to think through what’s going on and the ramifications. Your frontal cortex is not fully developed.”

Strong believes the earlier that interventions can be put in place for young people, the better. He pointed to Malabar Care Connect as an example of a successful intervention program to provide students with critical resources. 

“Your decision will be to either educate them, or incarcerate them. How do you want to spend your money?” Strong said. “We have to keep reaching out for them and keep giving them other opportunities.” 

With Love and Expertise

Despite 47 years in education, Jefferson wouldn’t say teaching is his main career objective. 

“If you’re going to be a public servant, you better be in the loving and serving business,” Jefferson said. 

He pointed to the Mansfield City Schools district mission statement as an example: “With love and expertise, Mansfield City Schools prepares diverse leaders and builds positive relationships with students, staff, and educational allies.” 

The statement leads with love, he emphasized. 

“They don’t care what you know, until they know that you care,” he said, quoting Theodore Roosesvelt. “You can have a PhD, a master’s degree, but it’s worthless if they don’t know you care about them. And if you care about them, they’ll go to the ends of the earth for you.”

Jefferson knows this from experience. At the age of 16, he lost his father. His mother, who did not have a high school or college education, was thrust into raising her family while struggling financially.

She didn’t have much to give, he said. But what she did give was love and support. 

“It inspired hope,” Jefferson said. “I went off to college dirt poor. But because of the fact that I had a person that believed in me, supported me, cared for me, I was able to get through.

“My mother gave me that chance. Because hope is simple.”