Birmingham City Council

Birmingham City Council Approves Violence-Reduction Effort for City High Schools

The Birmingham City Council on Tuesday approved a three-year partnership for conflict resolution programs in city high schools.

Birmingham-based nonprofit the Penny Foundation will implement and administer the Common Ground initiative, a program using the Habilitation, Empowerment and Accountability Therapy (H.E.A.T.) curriculum, which is “designed for people of color and/or others facing socioeconomic issues which applies a holistic, culturally relevant, responsive, strength-based model that emphasizes a positive and engaging approach to handling anger management and conflict resolution.” The program involves community mentors, called “coaches,” meeting with groups of at-risk students twice a week.

The city will contribute $100,000 to the three-year program, which has a total budget of $1 million. It’s the latest in a series of efforts to combat the sharp, post-COVID uptick of violent crime in the city. Birmingham logged 141 homicides in 2021, its highest number since 1992. So far, 133 homicides have occurred in the city in 2022; the city is on track to reach 151 by the end of the year, its highest in decades.

“I think we all know the issues in our community, of how young people and adults tend to respond when they have an issue with somebody, whether they know them or it’s a stranger,” Mayor Randall Woodfin said. “We keep looking to expand our toolbox of conflict resolution.”

Birmingham City Schools Superintendent Mark Sullivan said the program will address a growing issue for students.

“As we’re coming out of the pandemic, we’re seeing more and more students make more and more bad decisions because they don’t have the skill sets to make the right decisions, where someone is not shot, someone is not murdered, someone is not maimed for no other reason that these individuals could not come to a resolution that did not end in violence.”

The Common Ground program was piloted last year at Carver High School among ninth and tenth graders. Principal Tikki Hines said the program provided young men “an opportunity to sit and really talk about how to solve their problems with their words…. I did see a difference. These young men have not received, as a whole, suspensions. They have not been involved in anything that has been brought to my knowledge in the community. They’ve just been sitting back, laying back.”

Andra Sparks, the city’s presiding municipal judge, said that the program would recruit roughly 100 “coaches,” who will be deployed into 23 schools next semester. Each of those schools is expected to have a cohort of 15 students; some schools with have two cohorts.

District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn placed the program in the context of other violence reduction initiatives the city has approved, including a $3 million Jefferson County Department of Health violence intervention program, $1 million for a mental health program in Birmingham City Schools, and $1 million for a “Safe Havens” program at community recreation centers.

“Just let the record reflect that we’re doing a lot to address these types of issues in our community,” he said.

 This story has been changed to correct the superintendent’s first name.