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Cleveland Communities Grapple With Trauma From Gun Violence Spike

Nine-year-old Saniyah Nicholson was caught in crossfire and killed by stray bullet June 20.

A rash of shootings over the past week in Cleveland have contributed to a 20 percent jump in the overall numbers for July compared to last year, according to the Partnership for a Safer Cleveland.

So far this year, Cleveland Police say there have been 64 homicides. A majority of the shooting deaths in the city take place in the prominently black neighborhoods on the east side of town – a  stark reminder that people in these communities are often exposed to gun violence at a greater rate than other parts of city.

Nine-year old Saniyah Nicholson was one of the victims of gun violence this summer. On June 20, she was sitting in a car on Lee Road near Harvard Ave. with her 20-year-old sister when police say a gun battle between different groups of young men suddenly erupted.

Saniyah was eating ice cream, waiting for her mother, Marshawnette Daniels, to come out of the DNA Level C Boxing gym where Daniels’ 14-year-old son was training. Daniels, a nurse, says she got off work early and instead of sending Saniyah to fetch her brother, she decided to run inside herself that day.

“When I tell you it happened so fast, from the time I got out of the car and went in the gym, to just have a minute and a half conversation, to hearing gunshots. It was just ricocheting,” Daniels said. “All you could do is drop.”

The shootout was just a few feet away from Daniels’ car. According to police, a bullet pierced the car’s window and struck Saniya, killing her instantly.

“And the only thing I screamed was ‘my kids’ because my two were in the car,” Daniels said. “It was like the Wild Wild West.”

Now, weeks after the funeral, Daniels says she is still in shock, trying to grapple with the violence in her own community that killed of her child, an honor student who was full of life and loved to dance.

A grand jury indicted three of the young men allegedly involved in the shootout. Three other juveniles suspected of being involved in the exchange of gunfire have also been arrested.

Daniels is outraged this shooting happened in such a busy area, risking the lives of so many people.

“But one thing that we don’t talk about is the parents – that your son could pick up a gun and nevertheless shoot,” she said. “Where are you? Do you know how many people were on the sidewalk that day? There could have been multiple murders.”

Experts say when violence like this occurs so close to your business or close to home, people often feel violated. They can lose their sense of control over what happens to them, said Case Western Reserve professor Dan Flannery. He says repeated exposure to violence can have a compound effect on the brain.

“I think there is now accumulating evidence that there is a cumulative effect on our neuro chemistry of our brains if we are constantly exposed to violence or are victimized by violence overtime,” Flannery said. “This can have a significant impact on our health and our wellbeing and our mental health.”

Flannery is director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western.  Gun violence should be treated as a public health issue, he said, so that when multiple shootings occur in cities and neighborhoods there could be more than just a law enforcement response.

Instead, Flannery says there should be more of focus on prevention and more resources should be devoted to treating the mental stress and trauma created in neighborhoods battered by violence.

Daniels says after her daughter’s death, she and her family went into counseling. Her older daughter managed to graduate nursing school but it will take a long time for her to cope with witnessing her sister’s death.

Daniels is worried that trauma is making the people in the community numb and hardening their hearts so people are just afraid when they are see groups of young men.

“It does create a lot of extra stress,” she said. “Because it’s like if you go to the gas station and you see a bunch of guys, you don’t even want to go to the gas station because of that stereotype. But see it’s really not a stereotype for me because that was what I seen before my baby got taken away.”

The Prevention Institute, a policy think tank based in California, is also advocating for a public health focus to gun violence. It developed a process to address the problem by empowering the people who live in the embattled area.

The action plans developed by this group are being embraced in Cleveland by Metro Heath Hospital system. Hospital officials say they are working with African-American pastors from several churches. This fall they hope to roll out a plan to focus on community trauma from gun violence in Cleveland neighborhoods.