School assembly aims to stem rising tide of violence

Hashim Garrett, who turned his life around after being shot six times as a young gang member in Brooklyn, N.Y., spoke to St. Joseph High School students Tuesday afternoon, saying that while most of them may not deal with the violence of inner-city streets, they can inflict and endure another kind of pain that leaves invisible wounds.

“There’s a saying that the tongue is one of the smallest muscles in the body but it does the most damage,” Garrett told students.

Garrett who is paralyzed from the waist down, due to the gunshot wounds he sustained at age 15, is now a motivational speaker, preaching about the importance of forgiveness. He was one of the speakers with the Breaking the Cycle organization, which was started in the wake of the Columbine High School shooting. Breaking the Cycle puts on school assemblies as a proactive way to stem the rising tide of school violence.

“Dec. 14, 2012, changed everything,” St. Joseph High School’s dean of students, Martin Dempsey, said of the Newtown shooting. “School violence rarely starts with knives, it starts with gossip, bullying, peer pressure, gangs, and racism. These speakers advocate self-respect and respect for others and encourage positive links between school employees, parents, students, and law enforcement.”

Large portraits and quotes of victims of violence and peaceful leaders were hanging up in the school’s gymnasium during the assembly, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and Sandy Hook Elementary School Principal Dawn Hochsprung.

“Violence affects all of us,” Ian Winter of Breaking the Cycle said.

He urged students to follow the lead of great leaders and normal people who stood up to do what is right.

“It’s not the longevity of your life but what you did with it,” Winter said.

Garrett, who is now a father of two children, said he had to forgive not only the shooter but also himself and God for the challenges he faced in his life.

“Whatever you are going through it will get better,” Garrett said. “You may not be able to fix mommy and daddy, or your classmates, but you can fix yourself.”

Charles Williams, another speaker with Breaking the Cycle, is a former police chief who held on to anger about his mother alcoholism for most of his life.

As a kid, he was the student no one wanted to talk to but that people would often make fun of, he said.

He recalled some of the kindness of people who kept him going in his life, including an eighth grade classmate who talked to him about a favorite television show they both watched.

“We had something in common and it made us laugh — he saved my life,” Williams said. “You have the same opportunity every day of your life. You can kick the kid who’s down or pick them up and save their lives.”

Williams later in life was able to forgive his mother and be with her before she died. He wishes now he didn’t waste so much time being angry, because it prevented his own happiness.

Garrett and the other speakers said that students need to embody forgiveness on a daily basis, for their own good.

“Gandhi said, ‘Nonviolence is not for cowards, it is for the courageous,’” Garrett said. “That means violence is for cowards.”