Published in the Los Angeles Times

Leah Wells has spent two years learning about nonviolence at the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, DC, and now is sharing that knowledge with her Ventura students.

Wells, a teacher at St. Bonaventure High School, also will teach a nonviolence class for the wider community beginning next week at the Ventura County Church of Religious Science in Ventura.

This interactive class will teach conflict management, and the history and scope of the nonviolence movement, Wells said.

Before joining the St. Bonaventure faculty this year, Wells explored the roots of the nonviolence movement. At the time, she served as a student teacher in the high school that is closest to the White House and was volunteering at a juvenile facility in Maryland. “I’m very passionate about this subject because I feel the ideas put forward by peace advocates like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Albert Schweitzer are important to bring about social change and nonviolence,” Wells said.

School violence is down, but reactivity is up, Wells said. Words and action have power. Nonviolent action is not passive.

Wells’ lectures about the differences between violence and nonviolence go well beyond the obvious.

“I teach my students how to make nonviolence real in their own lives,” Wells said. “We look at the effects of what violence does in families, schools and the community.”

Her students learn nonviolent skills they can use in their own lives. They learn that violence in their community requires community members, young and old, to act, Wells said.

“Through an issues-awareness curriculum, they learn that other people are more alike than different,” she said. “They learn how to confront their own prejudices and redefine the problems they have with other people. It is never just one person’s problem.”

Wells teaches her students that the TV programs and news reports they choose to watch, the video games and magazines they guy, and the public policies and military actions they support all reflect a choice between violence and nonviolence.

She talks to her students about nuclear weapons and the death penalty. They have discussed the decision by Illinois Gov. George Ryan to impose a moratorium on capital punishment after alleged misconduct by judges and attorneys and questions about evidence. Maryland’s governor and others are considering similar moratoriums.

“Ninety-five percent of people on death row cannot afford their own attorney,” Wells said. “Poor individuals disproportionately receive death penalty sentences.”

Sister Helen Prejean, who gave a lecture last week that Wells’ students attended, said capital punishment is aptly named because the people without capital are punished, Wells said.

Prejean, whose story is chronicled in the movie “Dead Man Walking,” advocates a national moratorium on the death penalty, Wells said.

Wells leads discussions with her students about Proposition 21, which strengthens penalties against youth offenders.

“I absolutely believe that Prop. 21 is bad for the community,” Wells said. “It’s tough on crime and inflicts greater punishment, but it does nothing toward restoration of a relationship. It does nothing to benefit the victim and it objectifies the offender. It doesn’t foster trust, and it doesn’t bring that young person back into the circle.”

Many youth offenders have never had someone on whom they could depend, someone who could show them the best way to deal with conflicts, Wells said.

“I ask my students how they would feel if they didn’t have two people in the world who could show them the right way to be or to live. Those are the ones we are sending away,” she said.