VIBE Anti-Violence Team Funded By New SEEKS Program

Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 3/1/2023

Lee Davis prides himself on his empathy. Davis, the founder of Lee Davis & Associates Consulting, grew up in Braddock and went to Woodland Hills, seeing and experiencing violence around him regularly. 

Those experiences shaped the man he is today, a man who looks for solutions when he sees violence happening in communities in Pittsburgh. That mindset led the Sto-Rox School District and Lee Davis & Associates to partner together in an anti-violence effort over the next 18 months. Those efforts will be funded by the Project SEEKS SES (Supporting Expansion and Enhancement of K-12 School-Based Social, Emotional Supports) grant, a partnership between the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) and the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) that will address trauma, behavior and mental health issues in ten school districts. 

“My thing is: wherever people are hurting, that’s where I’m from. I don’t live in a silo or a bubble. So I can take my expertise where it’s needed and I speak up. I’m a disruptor. I don’t believe in the status quo,” Davis said. 

“We’ve lost so many people to violence. We’ve seen what happens in these communities. I saw what was happening in Sto-Rox and I saw the signs. I saw that Sto-Rox had a chance to get on top of this early.” 

Three of Davis’ employees will work full-time at Sto-Rox with the aim of stopping violence at the school and in the community by figuring out root causes of the issues. Davis and his team of three — formally referred to as violence interrupters — will be known as the V.I.B.E. team, which stands for Violence Intervention Building Empowerment. Megan Van Fossan, Sto-Rox’s superintendent, identified violence and trauma as issues she’d like to quell in the district. Having known Davis previously for work he’s done in violent communities, she knew that he was the right one for the job. 

“Interrupters are individuals that have very honed-in communication skills and understand the needs of our community and understand the history, the culture and the background of our citizens,” Van Fossan said.  

“The whole idea is that they interrupt that cycle of violence and figure out traditional and non-traditional ways of stopping it in its tracks.” 

The V.I.B.E. team will partner with Sto-Rox’s social workers and will regularly spend time in the district getting to know the students and building relationships. In addition to de-escalating violent situations and getting to the root causes of those issues, the team will look to identify what help and support a student and their family might need, whether that might be mental health support or help with housing or food instability.  

“The biggest thing is that we all are empathetic. We all came from this. We see that in the kids that we deal with, that a lot of the time they just need some love and some resources in the family,” Davis said. 

“We don’t deal with the kids in isolation from the community or the family. Everybody is going to play a part. That’s the public health approach, that everybody is going to be involved.” 

Van Fossan echoed Davis’ thoughts. 

“We really want it to be a family unit. We don’t just want the interrupters to deal with kids. We also want the interrupters to deal with the family units and bring them together and figure out alternative ways for them to deal with the conflict,” she said. 

The inspiration for the V.I.B.E. team was multifold, Van Fossan said. Stopping violence is a priority for the district, but so too is mental health. While the Sto-Rox school district provides plenty of mental health support, Van Fossan said there are not enough providers at large to properly care for every student who needs it. 

“Part of this is a trial balloon. We know kids need something, they can’t get it and there’s not enough providers, so what can we do in the meantime,” Van Fossan said. “What can we do to ward off the additional trauma that children are experiencing with conflict?” 

With hopes of preventing future trauma, Davis and Van Fossen will also try to address some current and past traumas that Sto-Rox students might have. Davis said there is a stigma in the African-American community about receiving mental health support, which in some cases might cause violent situations to bubble up. 

By getting to know the Sto-Rox students and their families well, V.I.B.E. will hope to break down those barriers. It’s that sort of mindset — looking past stigmas and the surface level — that serves as inspiration for this partnership and gives Davis confidence that he and his team will have success. 

“I know this is going to work because we’re going to address root causes and we’re really going to listen to what people have to say, instead of just telling people what’s wrong with them,” Davis said.  

“We’re going to listen to people and really want to dig down deep and figure out root causes and deal with traumas that never have been resolved. That’s our goal. That’s what makes us different from everybody else.”