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Preventing Violence By Teaching Literacy

How one tragedy sparked a literacy movement.

The proverbial middle of the night phone call. It’s a benign cliché, the stuff you read about in stories—until it's your phone that rings at 4 a.m. My family’s middle-of-the-night call came on May 6, 1995. It was the police, calling to tell us that my sister Melissa, then a 22-year-old senior at Washington University, had been killed—just two weeks shy of her graduation.

I was 10 years old at the time, my brother was about to graduate from high school, and my parents couldn’t comprehend how the world’s natural order had been so jarringly disrupted.

Melissa and her friend were walking back to their car after a casual Cinco de Mayo dinner. Two teenagers approached Melissa and her friend at gunpoint and forced them into a car. They shot and killed Melissa, and proceeded to rape and shoot her friend. Miraculously, my sister’s friend not only survived but convicted them, ensuring that the two men would never again have the opportunity to destroy another life.

The exaggerated platitudes often used to describe someone once they’ve passed away were sheer fact when it came to Melissa. She was beautiful, vibrant, smart, funny, and kind, an adoring sister and daughter. It was beyond comprehension that two teenagers out for an evening of cruel entertainment could have snuffed out Melissa’s bright light in such a senseless, random act of violence.

Melissa’s death was unbearable and unfathomable to my tight-knit family. The grief was palpable, but we vowed that we would not live in fear, not allow evil to prevail.

It was around a year later that the criminal process concluded and the jagged agony of loss started to subside into a dull sadness. My family was just learning to navigate a new world in which we had to contemplate acceptable answers to perfunctory questions, answers we still grapple with 15 years later: How many siblings do you have? How many children do you have?

My parents decided to take action to prevent violence from causing this pain in others. Our family helped establish The Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment—a nonprofit organization dedicated to the study and prevention of violence through education, community service, research support and consultation. With scientific evidence that violence is preventable, our mission is to promote safer communities through the application of research-based knowledge. It is unacceptable for anyone to live in a world where a violent crime is committed every 30 seconds, a murder every 30 minutes.

The Melissa Institute is in the midst of developing our most ambitious project to date—a literacy Web site that will prevent violence and save lives.

A few relevant facts: Up to 80 percent of incarcerated individuals are functionally illiterate; studies show that if a child reads on grade level by the end of 3rd grade, there is a 99 percent certainty that child will never be incarcerated; school performance, more than any other single factor, is a major contributor as to whether a youth becomes involved in drugs or violence.

Currently, we are allowing at-risk children to fall through the cracks and enter a path towards failure.

Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that teachers are only required to take only one or two undergraduate course in literacy instruction. If we are not properly educating teachers to teach reading skills to students, how can we expect our students to learn to read?

Dr. Dale Willows, a leader with more than 35 years of experience in the field and a member of the National Reading Panel, is developing this literacy web site for The Melissa Institute.

It will be a universally accessible, free program that will be used as a professional development tool for teachers of pre-K to third grade students. The program has been field-tested with astounding results in diverse sites, across ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. We have found, unequivocally, that the program works.

For instance, a school in Hialeah, Florida, went from having 37 percent of children passing the reading proficiency exam to 56 percent after the first year and 62 percent after the second year. Further, several schools in Jackson, Mississippi went from 65 percent proficiency in the base year to 83 percent in the first year and 96 percent in the fifth year.

This initiative will save lives—the lives of potential victims, and the lives of children who are destined to go down a violent path if we do not intervene. Beyond all else, we want to prevent another family from receiving that life-altering middle of the night call, and from unnecessarily losing a loved one to violence far before their time.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user Ozyman

Jessica Aptman is involved in her family's nonprofit organization, The Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment.

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