Every week during the school year, in classrooms across New York City, students in neighborhoods hit hardest by gun violence gather to tackle misconceptions about guns and gun carrying, improve their conflict resolution skills, and delve into the root causes of the problem.

The program, known as ReACTION, has been guiding students through its yearlong curriculum for the past two decades. They meet once a week, integrated into high school classes like health or political science, or as after-school programs. But unlike other courses, ReACTION is facilitated by credible messengers — community members who have experienced gun violence and use that experience to reach young people. Like the community-based violence intervention programs that operate outside schools, ReACTION aims to reduce gun violence, but also empower students to become advocates and leaders in their communities.

ReACTION operates in 20 high schools across the city — up from four in 2017. But 20 high schools account for just 5 percent of the more than 400 public high schools in New York City. That’s not to mention the dozens of other high schools across New York state in cities like Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester, where gun violence is just as much an issue as in Brooklyn or the Bronx, the boroughs where ReACTION’s programming is currently concentrated. 

“We’ve expanded, but it’s absolutely not enough when you think about the number of students who are impacted just in New York City alone,” said Rebecca Fischer, the director of the New Yorkers Against Gun Violence Education Fund, which operates ReACTION’s direct service arm and a “train-the-facilitator” program for community violence intervention organizations. “We need more funding invested in these programs — not just ours, but other programs that are comparable. It should be in hundreds of schools, and not only in New York City, but also in Buffalo and Albany and Rochester.”

The reason programs like ReACTION aren’t in more schools usually comes down to funding — but that could soon change. New York’s Legislature, which adjourned its 2024 session on June 15, passed a slew of gun safety bills, including one that could provide more funding opportunities for school-based community violence intervention programs.

The School Anti-Violence Education Act, awaiting the signature of Governor Kathy Hochul, clarifies that the New York State Education Department can issue competitive grants for violence intervention programs within or affiliated with schools.

We need more funding invested in these programs. It should be in hundreds of schools, and not only in New York City, but also in Buffalo and Albany and Rochester.

Rebecca Fischer, director of the New Yorkers Against Gun Violence Education Fund

That money would come from an annual $24 million appropriation in the state’s executive budget for school violence prevention. Programs like ReACTION could have qualified for grants from the state Education Department before, but there were roadblocks, including grant applications — or requests for proposals, known as RFPs — that didn’t clearly outline how such programs fit into the formula.

“It’s not particularly straightforward,” Fischer, who lobbied for the legislation, said. “And to the extent that there are RFPs pending, I haven’t seen anything that falls in this category. The intent here is to provide more explicit language that can then go into a grant solicitation.”

The new legislation is not a mandate, nor a dedicated set of funding for programs similar to ReACTION. And even if all $24 million went to school-based violence interruption programs like ReACTION, it wouldn’t be enough for every school in the state. But the measure would make it more likely these programs could receive the necessary funding to expand their reach. The bill clarifies that the Education Department should prioritize the neighborhoods with the highest rates of gun violence. 

The school violence prevention funding bill was one of at least five pieces of gun safety legislation that cleared the Statehouse this session. Lawmakers also passed bills to crack down on machine gun conversion devices like auto sears and Glock switches, to improve the state’s Extreme Risk Protection Order law, and require credit and debit card networks to use certain merchant category-codes for firearm and ammunition dealers. 

And they approved a bill meant to strengthen a state law that classifies the unlawful or improper marketing or sale of guns as a public nuisance. That law, enacted in 2021, allows for suits against gunmakers that can sidestep federal liability protections. New York Attorney General Letitia James used it to sue gunmakers over sales of ghost gun parts.

But gun reform advocates weren’t successful across the board.

Bills to prohibit the open carrying of rifles and shotguns and enact a 10-day waiting period on gun purchases failed to pass. Legislation to require that schools notify parents about safe storage practices, and another to decrease the number of active shooter drills, which have been shown to have detrimental mental health effects, also stalled. Nevertheless, advocates view the passage of the school anti-violence program bill as a success. 

Schools are often on the front lines of gun violence. Nationwide, there were at least 188,080 shootings within 500 yards of a school in the last decade, a Trace analysis showed. But schools frequently play a role in preventing violence, too. That can happen directly, as in classes and programs providing violence prevention instruction, or indirectly, by providing social supports like school psychologists, social workers, and after-school activities.

“It’s usually the neighborhoods that don’t get funding, the ones that have been disenfranchised, the forgotten communities — those are the ones that deal with a lot of this violence,” said Krystal Folk-Nagua, a former New York school social worker and advocate. “And it’s not because the people in these communities are violent. It’s because they feel like there’s no other option.”

Data collected from ReACTION’s participants showed that three in four had heard gunshots in their neighborhood, according to the New Yorkers Against Gun Violence Education Fund. Two in three knew someone personally who had been shot. And nearly half knew where and how to get a gun if they wanted one. 

Folk-Nagua saw that reality in her work as a school social worker, when a student brought a gun to school.

“And he brought a gun to school not because he wanted to cause harm to anybody, but because he was concerned for his safety,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s too easy to get a gun in New York City if you know the right people.”

“And we’re failing them,” she said of the students, “because we’re only punishing them, but they don’t know any other way to be safe.” 

While funding school violence prevention programs alone won’t fix broader disinvestment in marginalized communities, it could make a real difference for the students. Participants in ReACTION have shown significant change in attitudes toward gun carrying and violence. After completing the program, the number of students who felt that carrying a gun would make them safer dropped by more than 30 percent. 

“We have the evidence to show it,” Fischer said. “If we’re preventatively having these conversations with young people, that they’re much more prepared if and when they have to deal with horrible, preventable tragedies like gun violence.”