Atlanta Program Teaches Students 'De-escalate or Die'

By: Dave Roos  | 

Joshua Byrd
Joshua Byrd is a member of 100 Black Men of Atlanta where he chairs the Anti-Gun Violence Committee. Here he's teaching a group of students about how walking away from a fight could save their life. 100 Black Men of Atlanta

Gun violence in America has exploded since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the victims of deadly shootings are disproportionately young and Black.

In 2020, for the first time ever, firearm deaths outpaced automobile accidents as the leading cause of death among children 1 to 19 years of age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And Black teens are the hardest hit. Of all Black teenagers (15-19) who died in 2020, more than half were victims of gun violence, according to a 2022 report from the John Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.

"African American youth are 20 times more likely than their peers to die from gun violence," says Joshua Byrd, vice president of Hawque Protection Group and criminal justice professor at American InterContinental University, both in Atlanta. "Gun violence is at an all-time high in Atlanta."

Byrd also is the committee chair of 100 Black Men of Atlanta, a nonprofit mentoring and education organization that recently launched the Anti-Gun Violence Committee. It's a public awareness project aimed at teaching de-escalation strategies to young people in Atlanta's most at-risk communities.

"What I teach the kids is that you want to survive and you want to make it home," says Byrd, who grew up in some of those same hard-hit Atlanta neighborhoods. "I often tell them, 'Winning a fight is actually losing your life.' You might win the verbal argument, but a lot of folks don't take that well, and gun violence is the next step."

Rayshard Brooks protest
Gun violence in Atlanta has increased significantly since 2020. Here a man holds a gun after protesters blocked the road next to a Wendy's restaurant after Rayshard Brooks was killed a police officer in the Atlanta restaurant parking lot, June 16, 2020.
CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

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The '90s Are Back, in a Bad Way

This isn't the first time that Atlanta — or other major cities — has faced a gun violence crisis. Back in the 1990s during the crack cocaine epidemic, deadly shootings were a fact of life. Byrd witnessed his first shooting when he was just 7 years old and living in Techwood Homes, the first public housing project in the country.

"The thing I remember more than anything was, as the guy laid in the ground dying, everybody just continued on with life," says Byrd. "Crime was so rampant and distrust of the police was so high that nobody ran inside to call the cops." Techwood Homes was demolished in preparation for the 1996 Olympic Games because it was considered so dangerous and rundown.

Today, Atlanta is in the grips of a gun culture in which even the pettiest argument can quickly escalate to murder. In June 2022, customer shot two employees at a Subway near Mercedes-Benz Stadium, killing one, because he said they put too much mayonnaise on his sandwich. As of mid-July, the Atlanta Police Department had investigated nearly 90 homicides, a significant increase over 2021.

Byrd, a former Marine and police officer, says that a lot of factors are contributing to the skyrocketing gun violence in Atlanta, including an influx of new people to the city, poor police-community relations and a new Georgia law that allows residents to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.

During the last gun violence epidemic in the 1990s, the 100 Black Men of Atlanta launched a successful anti-violence public awareness campaign with billboards, T-shirts and marches across the city. Facing a similar crisis today, the organization applied for a $15,000 grant from Georgia Power to relaunch its 1990s-era campaign with a new focus on enlisting Atlanta's youth to change the city's deadly gun culture.

anti-gun violence artwork
One way students work on de-escalation training is through art, like this creative poster.
100 Black Men of Atlanta

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De-escalate or Die

Byrd says that there are three components to his organization's Anti-Gun Violence initiative:

  1. a public health-style awareness campaign using digital billboards across Atlanta
  2. a social media and traditional media campaign
  3. de-escalation training in Atlanta public schools

De-escalation means using your communication skills to turn down the heat of a disagreement or conflict before it becomes violent. Byrd calls it "verbal judo," a reference to the style of martial arts known as the "gentle way."

With his background in law enforcement and criminal justice and his firsthand experience growing up in Atlanta's gun culture, Byrd was the ideal person to lead the de-escalation training, but that doesn't make the job easy.

"Many of these students have never left their ZIP code," he Byrd. "If you ask them if there's another way to resolve a conflict, they usually say no because their universe of possibility is so limited. They only know how to deal with only one type of person, and those interactions usually escalate quickly."

Through a series of 12, two-hour sessions, Byrd tries to open the students' minds to a different type of conflict resolution built around treating people with dignity, civility and respect.

"Sometimes it's pride that gets in the way," Byrd says. "Sometimes it's winning an argument. But in the face of a gun, none of that matters. It's about thinking before you act and choosing your words carefully. What are the things you can do and say to calm the other person down and calm yourself down?"

anti-gun violence artwork
Students from the program show off their artwork with members of 100 Black Men of Atlanta.
100 Black Men of Atlanta

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Does the Training Work?

Studies on how well de-escalation training works for teens are difficult to come by. Most of the research to date has been conducted in the fields of nursing and psychiatry. And while there is plenty of anecdotal and testimonial information, the empirical and value-based evidence on whether de-escalation training works just isn't there — yet.

Evidence or not, that doesn't matter to Byrd. One of the reasons that even the most skeptical students listen to Byrd is because he's been in their shoes.

"In high school, a guy pulled a gun on me during an argument over a girl I was dating," says Byrd. "I did everything I now teach my students not to do. I cussed him out. I dared him to pull the trigger. Fortunately I survived. That's why I'm doing this. I'm just trying to save myself, trying to make an impact in the lives of people who are growing up in my same circumstances."

The grant from Georgia Power funded de-escalation training in two schools, but Byrd hopes that additional funding will allow the 100 Black Men of Atlanta to provide conflict resolution training in many more Atlanta metro public schools.

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