Avielle Richman was 6 years old when she was murdered in December 2012, along with 19 of her classmates and six adults, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Before that, her father, Dr. Jeremy Richman, was exploring ways to prevent or cure autoimmune and chronic diseases. But the massacre took him in a different direction.
“My wife and I are scientists. When we were confronted with this horrible tragedy, we were compelled to take action,” he said.
Together, Richman and his wife, Jennifer Hensel, a multi-disciplinary scientist, turned their attention to the study of the diseased brain. They started the Avielle Foundation, working with researchers throughout the world to study the brain pathologies that lead to violence, and how to prevent violence using community-based approaches.
“We’re trying to rebrand it as brain illness and brain health instead of mental health,” Richman said. “A lot of the barriers to people getting help are because mental illness is invisible, and full of stigma and fear and trepidation.”
However, he said, the brain is just another organ — an organ that can be diseased. The Avielle Foundation aims to study mental illness with this in mind, as well as to destigmatize it, to prevent tragedies such as the Sandy Hook shootings.
Richman’s was one of a number of stories that resonated during the New Directions in Violence Prevention Conference held at Curry College in Milton on Wednesday.
Malcolm Astley’s daughter, Lauren, had just graduated from Wayland High when she was murdered by her former boyfriend in 2011. Now, Astley campaigns to bring awareness to dating and breakup violence, especially in teenagers.
Clementina Chéry’s son, Louis D. Brown, was killed in 1993 by gang cross-fire in Dorchester while on the way to a Christmas party with the group Teens Against Gang Violence. In the aftermath, she started the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, which supports families of homicide victims and perpetrators, implements programs to encourage peace in schools and communities, and trains people to work with youth and families touched by violence.
Sponsored by Curry College’s master of arts in criminal justice program and the nonprofit Grandmothers Against Violence, the interdisciplinary conference brought together educators, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, academics, and community leaders to discuss the new ways people are addressing and thinking about various types of violence.
Ten main speakers covered topics such as violence prevention, dating and domestic violence, adolescent addiction and its consequences, gun violence, and post-Ferguson policing. The focus was on effective methods of dealing with and preventing violence in any context. And there were consistent themes of addressing issues in context and of various groups working together.
“In my experience,” said Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley in a talk on strategies to reduce gun violence, “there isn’t a single strategy to reduce gun violence; it’s a host of different factors.”
Increasingly, it seems, these emerging strategies focus on the variety of influences on a potential perpetrator as well as on a need for a joint approach.
“We live in a world where we seek to categorize things,” said Samantha Wright-Calero of Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “But we need to move beyond that and acknowledge people’s whole experiences.”Elise Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.