In the basement of a hospital in east Brooklyn, 16 middle school students dressed in navy blazers and striped ties stare through a pane of glass at a cadaver wrapped in a white sheet.
“What we’re trying to show you is, this is the end,” says Khari Edwards, an executive at Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center. “We want you to never have to come down here.”
Edwards says he’s seen too many kids wheeled into the emergency room with gunshot wounds. His new program, “It Starts Here,” brings students to his hospital, which serves some of the most violent neighborhoods in New York City.
Edwards aims to jolt kids “desensitized to violence” with a graphic 90 minute seminar that culminates with a visit to the morgue. He hopes that by exposing young people to the reality of death, they’ll make choices that keep them away from guns.
For some parents, that reality is too grim. Edwards says he’s heard from parents who refuse to allow their children to participate in the program because they don’t want them exposed to live videos of shootings and shrouded bodies. He’s heard comparisons of his initiative to scared straight-type programs, whose effectiveness has been discredited.
Edwards says he isn’t just trying to scare kids — he is trying to force them to confront a plague of gunfire that provides the backdrop to their everyday lives. Where Edwards lives, he frets whenever his son rides the train by himself, or goes to the park to shoot hoops. He is not alone. Since he kicked off the program in the spring, more than 120 kids have have participated.
Before an audience of more than 40 kids ages 10 to 15 in Brookdale’s auditorium, a large screen begins to play a video of a man walking through a Chicago neighborhood.
Bang-bang! Gunshots rattle the auditorium. The students watch as a man is shot live on Facebook. Next they see endoscopic footage of a bullet being removed from a victim’s eye, and later a slideshow of bullet-torn internal organs and body parts, including a gunshot blast to the face.
Some students shield their views with jackets or hats, or watch through splayed fingers. One closes his eyes, waiting for it to be over.
“The eye part was really scary,” 13-year-old Brianna Browne says later. “It made me feel really weird,” like the feeling of “butterflies in my stomach before I perform in dance.” Jordan Lopez, a 12-year-old who says he can sometimes hear gunfire from his home in Brownsville, said the presentation made him feel protective over his younger twin sisters. “Now I know that I have to look out for them more,” he says. “I don’t want them to die at a young age.”
Taya Saunders, a 13-year-old with a mouthful of pink braces, finds the presentation “very graphic and informative.” Another girl, Diamond Wynter, 12, exclaims afterwards to her friends, “I’m scared straight!”
The term “scared straight” dates to 1978, and a hit documentary by the same name. The film featured hardened convicts who shared their prison horror stories with juvenile offenders convicted of arson, assault, and other crimes. The convicts screamed, yelled, and swore at the young people. The concept behind the approach was that kids could be frightened into avoiding criminal acts.
It is an idea that has also been tested in drivers education classes across America. For several decades beginning in the 1960s, many soon-to-be-drivers watched a graphic video of mangled bodies being pulled from automobile wreckage — described in one magazine review as a “twenty-eight-minute gorefest” meant to deter reckless driving.
Scared straight programs have been largely discredited by research, but these strategies have enduring appeal — they’re seemingly cheap and simple solutions to complex, intractable problems. “People like these fear appeals and these kind of campaigns because it makes us feel like we’re doing something important,” says Alex Wagenaar, research professor at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health. “It makes us feel like we care. But the science shows that they are not effective.”
While programs that feature angry shouting like scared straight haven’t proved effective, there is research to suggest that fear can be used as a tool to help change behavior.
Tony Roberto is a professor at Arizona State University’s school of communication, and he’s helped create and evaluate fear-based health campaigns since the 1990s. “Scaring them is an important part of the process, but it’s only half of the process,” says Roberto. “You need to then direct that fear to a healthy response.” For example, if you frighten people about a new strain of the flu, you should then offer a flu vaccine.
“It Starts Here” is one of a small handful of violence prevention programs that bring youngsters to a morgue. Perhaps the most established is Cradle to Grave, a program at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia that recreates the last hours of the life of 16-year-old Lamont Adams, fatally shot in 2004.
In one study of Cradle to Grave, published in Injury in 2010, some students who had completed the program reported a decrease in aggressive tendencies.
In 2014, Edwards’ son was nearly robbed at gunpoint. Not long after, he learned about Temple’s program and decided to try something similar at Brookdale, where he is head of external relations. Edwards says he has surveyed some of the students who have attended, and is heartened by what he’s heard so far. Last week, for example, “there was one young kid who was a troublemaker during the whole program,” Edwards recalls. “After the program was over he came to me and said, ‘I could have been that kid… I don’t want to be in that place.’”
During the program, Edwards and his guest speakers encourage the students to pursue nonviolent paths, but ultimately, he leaves it up to them to draw their own conclusions.
“These kids, I just want to give them their choice, to say, ‘Ok, I got to see this side, now I know what the other side is, let me make that decision,’” says Edwards. “What happens when they go home and their environment takes them over?” he asks. “That’s the part that I need help with.”
Anthony Petrosino, director of WestEd Justice and Prevention Research Center, has spent his career evaluating policies and programs related to juvenile and adult criminal justice and violence prevention. “Every intervention works for some people and then fails miserably with others,” he says, speaking generally. “The question is, does the good outweigh the harm, does the harm outweigh the good?” To determine whether an intervention works, Petrosino says a study is needed. “Because it could be that that actually is harming the very young people they’re trying to help.”
Edwards, 43 and trim, came to the Crown Heights neighborhood from Barbados when he was 8 years old with his family.
New York City in the 1980s and 1990s was a violent place. In 1989, Edwards’s aunt went missing and was found dead 12 days later in a car in Long Island, shot twice in the head. A few years later, he saw a shooting in a club near his home.
These days, in many parts of New York, violent crime has all but disappeared. Since the murder peak in 1990, citywide murder and shooting tallies have hit historic lows, transforming New York into one of the safest big cities in America.
But in some sections of the city, violence has not slowed nearly as much. In 2015, Brownsville’s homicide rate was more than ten times that of Park Slope, an affluent neighborhood a few miles away. So far this year, the two precincts that encompass Brownsville and nearby East New York have seen more murders than all of Manhattan, according to NYPD crime data through October 2.
One of two regional trauma centers in East Brooklyn, Brookdale receives at least one gunshot wound victim every 48 hours, on average, according to trauma medical director Patricia O’Neill. Whenever Edwards’ beeper flashes “Code 99,” the signal for a major trauma call, he dreads that the victim is another young person. “The thing that bothers me the most about what’s going on is that it’s like these kids are killing each other with no understanding,” he says.
Edwards says when he sees a young gunshot victim come into the emergency room, his instinct is to pick his three kids up from wherever they are and take them home, where he knows they will be safe. In the spring of 2014, Edwards’s son Ethan, then 11, was riding the train from his school in Brownsville to his dad’s place in Crown Heights when some young guys demanded his phone, and one of the boys revealed a gun. Another boy recognized Ethan from the basketball court, and called the others off.
Ethan wasn’t injured, but that incident got Edwards thinking about the kids who might have hurt him that day. “You’re out there with a gun, thinking you’re going to rob somebody, right, probably not understanding what the ramifications of that bullet is,” he says.
“I get scared anytime my son doesn’t call me by 8 o’clock.”
Edwards says he started the morgue visit program so the kind of kids who might rob his son “think twice about it.”
He adds: “I’m trying to touch the kids who think that there’s no hope, and think [violence] is their only recourse … The ones who have the guns.”
Edwards considers himself an optimistic person. But his son’s close call did something to him. He plays out a typical conversation with Ethan these days. “My son told me a couple of times, ‘Hey Dad, we’re going to go to the park.’ ‘Where’s the park?’ ‘In Brownsville.’ ‘Alright, don’t do it.’”
But then I’m like, I can’t keep him sheltered,” he says. “There’s this hysteria internally. But you gotta keep calm.”
Some parents say they worry constantly about their children getting in trouble, getting hurt, or both. Sonja Wilson is one of the parents who signed the paperwork for her 14-year-old son, Prince, to attend the program earlier this month. She says the morgue visit came just in time. She’d been so desperate to convince him to take the prospect of violence seriously — that he could get shot, that their neighborhood is no place to be wandering around — that she’d considered going to a funeral parlor and faking her own death. “I wanted to be in the casket to show him how he would feel if I leave,” she said. She was hoping the morgue “would shake him up a little bit.” She thinks it did.
Shilevia Shaw was torn about letting her son, Reuben, go to the morgue. “Will he get nightmares, will it be on his mind all the time, will he be scared to die all the time, will he freeze up?” she wondered. “And then I thought, it’s good to see that this is what can happen, and it could be me on the other side of the glass looking at him.”
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Ronald McNeill Sr. says he wasn’t aware that his son Ronald Jr. would be touring a morgue on the field trip. “That’s a little much for a 12-year-old,” he says.
Administrators at Ronald Jr.’s school did not respond to a request for comment, but parents of other children at the school said they received calls informing them of what the trip would involve prior to the visit.
Edwards says the morgue completes the picture of what they’re already exposed to. “They’re used to the crackle at night,” he says of the kids who’ve come through the program. “Kid could tell you right now — ‘That’s a 9mm.’ But now they’re getting to see the victim of a 9mm, which they don’t get to see every night.”
“Maybe I did scare them,” he adds. “And I’m fine with that … I want you to be scared of shooting that bullet … Guns end lives way too quickly.”
This story was produced in partnership with The Guardian.
Photography by Joel Arbaje for the Trace.