Interrupters discuss violence, mediation at ETHS

Sammy Caiola, Reporter

Tio Hardiman knows the streets of Chicago inside and out. He ran them for 12 years as a gang member before turning his life around in 1989. Now, he dedicates his time to violence prevention in neighborhoods all over the Chicago area and, most recently, at Evanston Township High School.

Hardiman visited ETHS on Wednesday to talk about his nonprofit, Cure Violence Illinois, formerly known as CeaseFire, which aims to prevent street violence through peaceful mediation. He also created the Violence Interrupter Initiative, which was featured in the award-winning 2011 documentary by Medill Prof. Alex Kotlowitz, “The Interrupters,” for significantly reducing the number of homicides in Chicago.

With three interrupters on hand, Hardiman shared his strategy for violence mediation with about 80 ETHS students who attended the assembly.

The key to maintaining a peaceful environment in Evanston, he said, is learning to get along with one another and not getting easily egged on to a fight. He recalled a time when there was no violence in Evanston and said the change happened as blacks moved north out of Chicago. He called specifically on Evanston’s black students to rise above the violence.

“Violence should be the furthest thing from your mind,” he said. “It’s not worth it. You end up in a 6-by-9 cell 23 hours a day. No matter how tough you are, it’s always better to listen to somebody and pause before you make the right decision.”

But in the open discussions following Hardiman’s presentation, students talked about needing to have tough reputations in school, and how even the smallest conflict in the hallway could sometimes ignite a fight.

Tyresa Randolph, an ETHS senior who recently moved to Evanston, said the influx of city kids may be a contributing factor in the violence. When Evanston natives hear about kids from the rough parts of the city, she said, they try to test their street smarts.

“I’m from the West Side, and when I first moved here I got into fights because I felt like I had to prove myself,” she said. “There’ll always be trouble with people moving in from the city.”

Other students talked about violence being taught at home.

When Hardiman asked whether students thought violence was more related to gang conflicts or interpersonal conflicts, the majority of students raised their hands for gangs. He noted that a lot of crimes are classified as gang violence because they involve gang members, but are actually rooted in interpersonal conflicts over relationships, money or affiliation. He cautioned students against getting too worked up over drama, especially the kind that begins on social media sites.

Sam Pettineo, ETHS safety director, said fighting is the most common form of violence in the school, and occurs far more often between two students than between a student and a teacher.

“Most of our fighting is related to interpersonal conflicts between students, primarily over stuff that’s said on Facebook and Twitter,” he said. “It’s a little hard for us to get to the bottom of where the conflict is because it’s really convoluted and not rational in some cases.”

After presenting a Powerpoint on mediation strategy, Hardiman encouraged attendees to become the point person for peacemaking in their individual cliques. He said they should stay informed about conflicts between friends and get those people to talk it out in a peaceful way before it escalates to violence.

“Minimize the gossip,” he said. “Gossip turns into serious issues, and people get hurt for no reason. Everyone in this room should be brothers and sisters. Nobody wins when a senseless act of violence is committed.”