At school and on the street, young people learn ways to break cycle of violence

By Arlene Edmonds
Special to The CS&T

Catholic school parents received a letter March 11 notifying them about an incident in which a student at St. Andrew School in Drexel Hill was arrested for carrying two guns into school.

Within the city limits of Philadelphia there were 17 homicides during the past month – most were gun deaths; several involved fatal stabbings. Most of the perpetrators and victims were male.

Roman Catholic High School senior Brandon Moultrie has lost several male friends to the escalating violence in Philadelphia.

Four years ago, two of them were gunned down near 26th Street and Indiana Avenue in North Philadelphia. Another, who attended Catholic schools with him, was shot last year as an innocent bystander in a drive-by shooting. Still another Catholic schoolmate wound up in a suburban alternative school after he was a perpetrator in a violent crime.

These days Moultrie, 17, speaks to younger children about how he thinks they can avoid being a part of the cycle of violence. An alumnus of St. Martin de Porres School in North Philadelphia, he returned to his alma mater April 25 to speak at the third annual Hands Across Lehigh peace march.

“All of those who became violent were absolutely angry ever since they were really young,” said Moultrie, an aspiring broadcast journalist. “They all came from families where they didn’t get any attention. They usually didn’t have a father around, or the father worked all the time. They were resentful or insecure because they had to raise themselves. It all stems from the family.”

While some may think that engaging young men in athletic activities “to keep them out of trouble” is just a cliché, Moultrie disagrees. He recommends sports as a vehicle to let out frustration. For him, basketball has been an outlet to curb his raging hormones and mood fluctuations, he said.

When talking to younger kids, Moultrie shares the benefits of Catholic education – even for those who may not be of the faith.

One of Moultrie’s friends who attends a reform school is turning his life around and is vying for a football scholarship to attend college. Moultrie attributes this turnaround to the lessons his friend learned in Catholic school.

“For me going to church not only filled my time on the weekend, but listening to my dad, my mom and my pastor talk about what Jesus would do always stays with me,” said Moultrie, who is a member a North Philadelphia Baptist church. “Even if it seemed like I wasn’t paying attention I know it always stayed in the back of my mind. Going to Catholic school was an extra reminder. You can still be a good person and go to public school, but for some who don’t go to church that’s the only place they learn about God.”

According to Mary Rochford, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the anti-violence emphasis in Catholic schools helps students learn nonviolence through religion classes and focuses on peaceful conflict resolution.

In the schools located in more violent neighborhoods there are even “peace rooms” for students who have difficulty controlling their emotions, she said.

“We realize that many students will get angry,” Rochford said. “We say that feelings are not failings. We live in a violent culture. Yet we help the students control their emotions and to learn peace by teaching them to live the Gospel. Woven into the curriculum is a respect for life which means violence has no place.”

Philadelphia family therapist Lucille Ijoy agrees that young people need to have tangible tools to address their inner emotions, and those tools sometimes have to be taught to the whole family.

She said for many American families (of all racial and ethnic groups) discipline is equated with punishment, including spanking. She noted that discipline actually comes from the word disciple or one who embraces teaching.

In many households, however, there is very little teaching or training. There are harsh means of physical discipline, verbal abuse or harsh punishments, according to Ijoy.

“Violent young people learned that behavior somewhere, and it is usually in the family,” Ijoy said. “So we have to go back to basics. Families need to tell their young people that in this family we don’t hit anyone ever, not a child, not your husband or wife, not the grandmother, not your parent. When you are angry, in this family, we talk about it. We negotiate, compromise, discuss, take deep breathes, count to 10 and take time outs. What makes we humans different from animals is that we don’t have to attack.”

To further address the need for community outreach to families, Catholic Social Services provides after-school programs in inner-city Catholic elementary schools, according to James Amato, the deputy secretary for CSS. The schools are located in North, Northeast and Southwest Philadelphia.

“We look at the actual police district reports and place our after-school programs where the violent crime rate is the highest in the inner-city neighborhoods,” Amato said. “The children are safe there while their parents work. There they learn about anti-violence. We also have a host of other services at St. Gabriel’s and other facilities.” [See stories on page 15 and 16.]

Father’s Day Rally co-founder Bilal Qayyum said that every Monday to Thursday evening his group holds sessions for men to let out their anger and to learn how to be better fathers. These are held at the non-profit organization’s headquarters located at 32nd Street and Girard Avenue in Philadelphia.

Sometimes 20 men show up for the counseling initiative, including many Latino Catholics.

“It’s time to really show men examples of those who live in a negative community environment and are surrounded by the negative media messages but are not acting out,” Qayyum said. “If they give children support, attention and nurturing they will know that acting out is not an option. Parents need to be educated about how to manage their own emotions and teach their children to do the same. They have to be willing to say ‘turn off that television or that music,’ or at least discuss the messages. If they just let themselves and their children be exposed to the violence without learning to deal with it, they will continue to live in violence.”

Qayyum added that it is stereotype that violent families only reside in the inner-city or in African-American communities. He pointed to the many suburban communities, including those in Delaware County, Reading or Allentown, that are dealing with escalating violence.

“There is a growing concern among those in Vietnamese and Cambodian communities, who have reached out to our organization for help in dealing with increased violence there,” he said. “This week when we hold a panel discussion on the homicides in the state at the University of Pennsylvania we will bring out how universal this problem is because we live in a violent culture.”

HeartSpeak addresses the region’s escalating violence in a different way – by introducing youths to the art of poetry. During April, National Poetry Month, the “We the Poets” initiative of the non-profit center presented programs that help young people to channel their emotions into art, poetry and multi-media productions. The program is in 30 public and private schools, including several Catholic schools.

Ta’Naja Saunders and Roderick Miller, both 10-year-old fifth graders at LaSalle Academy in North Philadelphia, participate in the initiative. Through the program they’ve learned that there are creative alternatives to anger or frustration.

“I am learning how to express myself through poems,” Saunders said. “When you express your feeling by writing a poem it’s the right thing to do. That’s a better way to express how I feel. We learned that if I felt like jumping someone or if I get really excited about something, I can write a poem about it. There are many possible ways to express feelings.”

“Now I know that you don’t have to use your fists to express yourself,” Miller said. “Words are a better way to express yourself because people who don’t know how to express anger become violent people. They may even take someone’s life.”

For information about Catholic Social Services’ programs, visit call 215-587-3900 or e-mail; about Father’s Day Rally Committee sessions for men call 215-236-3372; about HeartSpeak visit

Arlene Edmonds is a freelance writer and St. Raymond of Penafort parishioner. She may be reached at