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Violence prevention discussed at town hall

DEKALB – Roughly 50 people gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of DeKalb on Friday to engage in a discussion about how to promote peace and prevent violence through education, policy and programs.

The event, titled Learning to Leave Peaceably in Violent Times, featured a panel including DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack; Maylan Dunn-Kenney, an early childhood education professor from Northern Illinois University; Toni Tollerud, a professor of counseling at NIU; and DeKalb Police Chief Gene Lowery.

Schmack started the discussion by saying the focus should not only be on the tragedies of gun violence but also the victories in reducing violence. He cited statistics showing many violent crimes are at the lowest level since the 1960s, including homicide rates involving firearms, which is down to 3.3 percent.

“It isn’t all bad news and that’s important to remember in this discussion,” he said. “What we have to look at, I think, to some degree … is what are we doing right and how do we expand on that.”

Dunn-Kenney talked about breaking the cycle of violence in families and reaching children early. She said breaking the cycle starts with empathy, promoting fairness and kindness, teaching conflict resolution and never acting as if violence does not exist.

“Children who observe [violence] and experience it see it as the norm,” she said. “When you encourage empathy, you’re discouraging violence right there.”

Tollerud distributed a violence continuum worksheet that outlined how violence starts much earlier than most people realize. She said actions such as eye rolling and gossiping are the seeds that grow more violent behavior.

To stop that behavior early, she said parents, teachers and leaders must be the role models.

“We must learn to intervene sooner,” she said. “As children begin to learn inappropriate behavior, they usually don’t begin by grabbing a knife and stabbing someone.”

Lowery said it is time for people to change their perception of police.

Police officers cannot make violence vanish from a community, but they can stop violent situations that have started. To make sure those situations do not begin, he said the police and residents must become a “we” and work together.

“We can sit here and have a dialogue, but if that dialogue goes nowhere … nothing is going to change,” he said.

“If you have a question or concern or are mad at me about something … I want a relationship built. Whatever we can do [together], we will do as a result of relationship building.”

Dan Kenney, organizer of the event and husband of Dunn-Kenney, said he hoped the panel discussion would be the beginning of a community effort to reduce violence and spark action in the form of task forces and other dedicated groups focused on making a cultural change.

He said the polarizing discussions about gun control on the national level are not conducive to making real change. He pointed to the families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings joining together and making a national call for town hall meetings across the nation to address mental illness and gun violence at a local level.

“This whole issue is much bigger than guns,” Kenney said. “We have to find a common ground.”

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