Violence prevention wasn’t on Alan Heisterkamp’s mind when he began his career more than 30 years ago as a high school math teacher in the Sioux City School District. Heisterkamp, ‘84, had set his sights on working his way through the administrative ranks — assistant school principal, then head principal, and ultimately superintendent.
But that changed on April 20, 1999, when, along with the rest of the country, he heard the news that two high school seniors had gunned down 12 classmates and one teacher while while wounding more than 20 others at Columbine High School in Colorado.
“Time seemed to stand still,” Heisterkamp recalled. He and his colleagues watched news coverage over the lunch hour in disbelief. Then an assistant principal of West High School in Sioux City, Heisterkamp fielded calls from concerned parents wishing to pull their kids out of school.
“This day would forever change the way in which schools, law enforcement officials and community leaders would think about school safety moving forward,” Heisterkamp explained.
And it would alter the course of Heisterkamp’s life. While parents and school administrators across the country called for tighter security measures, an increased law enforcement presence and even metal detectors, Heisterkamp felt a more proactive approach was the answer.
So devoted to this belief was Heisterkamp that he left school administration to work in violence prevention full-time — a trajectory that would ultimately lead to partnering with faculty at the University
of Northern Iowa to co-create the Center for Violence Prevention (CVP). Established in 2011, the CVP has since transformed the landscape of violence prevention in Iowa and reached thousands of middle and high school students with education and training.
The center was rededicated last fall in honor of a $2 million gift from Patricia and O. Jay Tomson, a Mason City couple who created an endowment to help sustain the CVP’s work for years to come. Henceforth, it will be known as the Patricia A. Tomson Center for Violence Prevention.
Violence manifests in various ways and is more common than many believe.
Sexual activity when consent is not obtained or not freely given
+ More than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetimes
Physical, verbal, relational/social and damage to victim’s property
+ About 1 in 5 high school students reported being bullied on school property
+ More than 1 in 6 high school students reported being bullied electronically in the last year
+ Nearly 14% of public schools report that bullying is a discipline problem occurring daily or at least once a week
Teen Dating Violence
Physical or sexual violence, psychological aggression and stalking
+ 1 in 11 female teens experienced
physical dating violence in the last year
+ 1 in 15 male teens experienced physical dating violence in the last year
A center is born
The origins of the CVP date back to 2000, a decade before it was formally established.
It was then that Annette Lynch, a professor in the textiles and apparels program, and Michael Fleming, professor of family studies, were at the forefront of an emerging national conversation around sexual assault on college campuses.
At that time, advocates across the country were demanding that men take on a greater role in assault prevention and accountability. Voices on the UNI campus were joining the call for change.
“That conversation of how to engage men in this work as allies, recognizing the work that’s been done by women and supporting that work, building upon that work — that was an important conversation happening during that time,” Fleming explained.
“From a student perspective, in 1999 there was a clear call coming into my office in Women’s and Gender Studies that we needed to increase efforts to address gender violence on our campus,” said Lynch.
In response, Lynch partnered with students, faculty and staff to improve prevention and victim services at UNI. Lynch invited Jackson Katz, the founder of the Mentors in Violence Prevention program (MVP), to the UNI campus to train faculty and student affairs, police and athletic department staff from UNI, Iowa State University and the University of Iowa. Created in 1993, MVP is a “mixed-gender, multi-racial prevention program” that was the first program of its kind to activate bystanders in preventing sexual harassment, assault and relationship abuse, according to the MVP website.
With a groundswell of support growing at UNI, Lynch and Fleming collaborated to secure two grants totaling over $800,000 from 2000-2005 through the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The funding helped establish MVP at UNI, as well as prevention programs in communication studies, athletics, student affairs and public safety.
Following the success of that work, in 2007 UNI became one of four institutions in the country awarded a $1 million grant through the DOJ’s Office of Violence Against Women’s Flagship Initiative. With the flagship grant, Lynch and Fleming took their work to greater scale, leading an effort across Iowa’s Regent universities to educate students, train campus police and — for the first time — revise policies to be more responsive to sexual and gender-based violence. A $700,000 renewal of the Flagship DOJ grant in 2010 set the stage to establish the center the following year.
In the spring of 2007 Heisterkamp left education to work full-time with the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention, a nonprofit founded by businessman, philanthropist and Sioux City native Ted Waitt. Heisterkamp credits a presentation from Darrell Scott — father of Rachel Scott, a 17-year-old who was the first victim of the Columbine shooting — with inspiring him to make violence prevention his life’s work.
“It was a leap of faith,” Heisterkamp said of the decision to join the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention. “We had four kids and I was walking away from a good-paying job. But I was asking myself the questions: How is this school going to be safe for my children? For all students? So that was a turning point.”
Over the next several years, Heisterkamp worked with the Sioux City School District to implement and evaluate Jackson Katz’s MVP program with secondary school students. Heisterkamp and his collaborators discovered that the peer-based, bystander approach was incredibly effective. Through MVP, high school juniors and seniors are trained in prevention strategies and then become mentors to their younger peers, leading workshops alongside school and MVP staff. The workshops focus on guided discussions and problem-solving activities around scenarios that depict harassment, bullying and other forms of gender violence.
“We began to see the culture and the climate of the school slowly, but surely improve,” Heisterkamp commented.
It was Katz who connected Heisterkamp to Lynch and Fleming, hoping that UNI could partner with Alan’s work in secondary schools to make a bigger impact throughout the state.
“I said to Alan … ‘you belong here.’ The bells were going off,” Lynch remembered. “I just knew that the impact could be much broader if the intervention started in secondary schools and continued through an individual’s college years.”
A deep partnership formed, and Heisterkamp began making regular seven-hour round trips from Sioux City to Cedar Falls.
“I would sleep on Michael’s couch in his basement,” laughed Heisterkamp. “We didn’t have a lot of models to point to in terms of violence prevention, so working together to collect the little bit of data that we did have was the birth of the CVP.”
MVP continues to be a main focus of the center, but programming has expanded to include Coaching Boys Into Men — a partnership with the Iowa High School Athletics Association to promote healthy relationships and prevent sexual and dating violence — and a series of statewide symposia around issues such as “Men’s Leadership and Accountability Around #MeToo.”
And partnerships with Swedish and Scottish organizations — including Sweden’s Ministry of Education and Scotland’s National Violence Reduction Unit — have taken the CVP model international.
Secondary school students in engaged in MVP Strategies
UNI students participated in MVP classroom modules
UNI students, faculty and staff received training and certification in MVP Strategies
Secondary school coaches participated in training program
High schools partnering with CVP to implement bullying and gender violence prevention programming
Pat and O. Jay Tomson
While most of its programming is focused on Iowa school districts, the CVP has been a resource for UNI students as well. Over the past 10 years, more than 8,500 UNI students have participated in MVP trainings, and dozens more have experienced the center through their coursework.
A 2016 gift from Patricia and O. Jay Tomson provided funding for students to work more closely with the center to gain hands-on experiences with victim services and violence prevention organizations throughout the state and beyond. In five years, 58 students have completed internships coordinated through the CVP and funded through the Tomson Scholars program.
For Sara Naughton, ‘20, being a Tomson Scholar was one of the most memorable experiences of her master’s program in women’s and gender studies. The scholarship gave Naughton the chance to intern with Cedar Valley Friends of the Family, where she assisted the organization with research on disability access to services related to violence prevention.
“The Tomson scholarship allowed me to get the most out of that internship, which really shaped my professional and personal goals,” Naughton said. “It was definitely a highlight of my experience and cemented for me that I’m in the right work.”
Following graduation, Naughton returned to her home state of Pennsylvania to become the community impact manager of data and evaluation at United Way of Erie County. One of the initiatives she supports is the community schools model, which channels resources into high-need schools to alleviate poverty, reduce educational achievement gaps, and address risk factors for violence prevention.
“Getting to know really effective programs like Mentors in Violence Prevention and Coaching Boys Into Men, has really helped me in this position — to search for and understand what it means to be data-driven and effective,” Naughton explained.
Speaking at the CVP rededication event last fall, the Tomsons said the center’s “life-changing” work and the success of their scholarship program inspired them to establish an endowment to support the CVP. Their gift will provide operational support as well as sustained funding for the Tomson Scholars program.
Patricia Tomson, ‘86, who obtained her master’s degree in counseling from UNI, spoke of her passion for keeping children safe. A retired family therapist, she spent decades advocating
for children and other survivors of abuse.
“You prioritize the things that give you purpose,” Patricia said. “This work gives me purpose.”
Reflection and the road ahead
Celebrating the CVP’s 10-year anniversary has given Heisterkamp, Lynch and Fleming the chance to reflect on their work, as well as the changing nature of the field of violence prevention. In interviews, each noted prevention has made great strides, but challenges remain.
Heisterkamp remarked that the digital space has been a new and constantly evolving frontier in prevention. He explained that CVP regularly updates and adapts its lessons on social media literacy, sexting and other concerns of teens being online.
“These were not lessons and activities in classes that we were teaching 20 years ago,” Heisterkamp said. “So that has been a big shift: the frequency, and the ease with which bullying, harassment and violence can occur through social media.”
Lynch commented on the CVP’s resiliency over the years, and the “many seeds that have been planted” by the center — from MVP work with the UNI Army Reserve Officer Training Corps to partnerships with victim services groups nationally and internationally.
“With the support of the Tomsons, the Waitt Institute, Verizon and other funders, the work and impact of the CVP has stretched beyond my wildest imagination from writing that first grant,” Lynch said. “And we continue to grow our vision.”
Fleming has noticed a marked shift in the conversation on healthy relationships and men’s role in violence prevention.
“Now there’s so much happening, so much awareness in the community,” Fleming said. “It’s great to be a voice in the choir, versus being more of a soloist out there.
But we still have a long way to go, no doubt,” he added.
For Heisterkamp, the mission that compelled him 20 years ago — to make schools safer — is still guiding the work. And he’s optimistic about the road ahead.
“We’re better off than we were 20 years ago on addressing these issues in meaningful ways,” he said. “In part because we’re giving the students the platform to say something. And they are taking the microphone.” UNI
“We’re better off than we were 20 years ago addressing these issues in meaningful ways. In part because we’re giving the students the platform to say something. And they are taking the microphone.”
- ALAN HEISTERKAMP