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December 12, 2014

Beyond the Crossfire: Student Documentary on Gun Violence

Teacher and students and video camera
CGU alumnus and San Diego area high school teacher Matt Simon led his students on a project to produce a documentary on gun violence and what young people could do to change it. (Photo courtesy of Matt Simon)

When a group of students at a San Diego area high school decided to produce a documentary on gun violence, they recognized it as a problem that takes a massive toll on American children.

But they were also tackling an issue that had personally affected everyone at High Tech High in Chula Vista.

In 2011, 15-year-old freshman Sean Fuchs and his younger brother Kyle lost their lives due to gun violence at their home. Two years ago, biology teacher Nuvia Ruland’s best friend’s 6-year-old daughter was killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Prompted by these events, 45 High Tech High students embarked on a quest to answer sobering, challenging questions: Why is there so much gun violence in our country? What can young people do to change it?

Matt Simon
“Our students get to spend their school days working on meaningful projects that address real challenges in their community and in our country,” said Matt Simon regarding his students’ Beyond the Crossfire. project. (Photo by Meghan Siddall)

High Tech High humanities teacher and CGU alumnus Matt Simon (MA, Teacher Education, 2011) is leading students toward finding answers.

“Our students get to spend their school days working on meaningful projects that address real challenges in their community and in our country,” he said.

And while it started out as a social-justice research effort—led by Simon and Ruland—the Beyond the Crossfire project ended up a finalist in the inaugural White House Film Festival.

“At the end of the day, this has already been a more meaningful project than any of the students ever imagined,” Simon said.

Students are currently at work expanding the three-minute film they produced into a full-length documentary investigating underlying causes and ways to prevent gun-related tragedies.

In 2010, more than 3,996 homicide victims ages 10-24 were killed by a firearm, according to 2012 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Beyond the Crossfire was framed by High Tech High’s focus on social justice, student voice, and innovation, Simon said. But CGU’s Teacher Education’s emphasis on project-based learning was also a powerful influence.

“You start with a question that is virtually impossible to answer and give students a chance to research it as far as possible,” Simon said.

Student
Matt Simon’s students formed teams handling publicity, social media, video production, and other tasks. The short film they produced was among the 16 films screened at the White House Film Festival in February 2014. (Photo courtesy of Matt Simon)

The project avoided Second Amendment issues to keep it from becoming a politicized debate. Instead, students opted to focus on interviews around the country with individuals and groups that had been successful in reducing gun violence in their communities.

To raise money, Simon’s students launched a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter—a crowdfunding website—to cover the cost of equipment, software, and other expenses.

They formed teams handling publicity, social media, video production, and other tasks. Local newspapers, such as the Del Mar Times and U-T San Diego, began covering the project.

Students eventually surpassed their $18,000 goal and raised more than $30,000 from more than 350 backers. They produced a short film discussing the scope and nature of the project. It was among the 16 films screened at the White House Film Festival in February 2014.

DeLacy Ganley, director of the School of Educational Studies’ Teacher Education program, praised Simon’s work.

“He is someone who is committed to teaching, committed to working with kids, and committed to their academic success,” she said. “He is really living out our vision.”

On the strength of Beyond the Crossfire, several of Simon’s students earned scholarships and traveled to Washington, DC to participate in a violence prevention summit and meet with representatives from the public policy organization Center for American Progress.

“It really was about the project more than the film itself,” Simon said.