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Children of violence

No child should have to feel as if they're living in a war zone.

Far too many Baltimore students come from impoverished inner-city neighborhoods wracked by drug and gang violence where shootings, stabbings and beatings occur on a daily basis. When impressionable young people witness dreadful things happen to family, friends and neighbors, it leaves a mark on the soul that can last a lifetime. They've been cruelly traumatized by what they've seen and experienced, and if they're ever to get over it emotionally and psychologically they're going to need help.

That's why this week federal education officials awarded a grant of more than $350,000 to Baltimore's Renaissance Academy High School to help students and staff heal after the stabbing death of a student there last year. The money will fund additional support staff positions and mental health counselors for the school's innovative "Seeds of Promise" mentoring program aimed at helping young African-American males negotiate the treacherous path to adulthood.

It's a program we'd like to see replicated in any number of other Baltimore schools. The psychological toll of violence is an issue confronting young people across the city, and it demands a citywide response.

The Renaissance Academy is particularly in need of support, however, because the violence there occurred not on the street outside the school building but inside the protected space of the classroom. Seventeen-year-old Ananias Jolley was stabbed there a few days before Thanksgiving and died of his wounds a week later. A classmate is charged in the killing. His death plunged the whole school into a period of mourning from which it has yet to emerge. And as if that weren't enough, in the subsequent months, two more Renaissance students, Darius Bardney and Daniel Jackson, also fell victim to deadly violence.

A survey released this year by researchers at the University of Maryland School of Social Work shows just how common violence is in the lives of young people growing up in Baltimore's grittiest neighborhoods. More than two in five youngsters said they witnessed some form of physical violence at least once a week, and nearly 40 percent said they knew someone who had been killed before his or her 20th birthday. A similar margin said they knew someone with a gun and nearly 20 percent said they could easily get a gun if they needed one to protect themselves.

These are young people living with high levels of stress who feel they must constantly be on the alert for threats to their health and safety. Many can barely imagine what life might be like for them in five or 10 years simply because they don't expect to live that long. The anxiety and bouts of depression they endure are comparable to those of veterans returning from a war zone. In fact, researchers have found that nearly a third of children exposed to chronic violence in their communities will develop some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are not nearly enough resources to reach all the young people who need help. The hope is that support programs like the one at Renaissance Academy can serve as a model for what schools can do to help troubled youngsters overcome the daunting obstacles they face. City schools CEO Sonja Santelises has said she wants to make boosting mental health services and trauma training in schools a top priority of her administration because they provide a lifeline for students who feel besieged by the violence in their communities.

She's exactly right: If Baltimore's young people are to thrive, all schools must become safe havens where children feel protected and secure. No child should have to feel as if he or she is constantly living in a war zone or endure the emotional and psychological trauma such feelings engender.

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