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Strategies to Combat Youth Violence

ALTHOUGH youth violence has declined since the 1990s, it is still an ongoing problem in America. The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics show that more than 750,000 young people were treated for violence-related injuries in 2004.

While tragedies like last year’s Virginia Tech shootings are not typical of the violent incidents that lead to the injury of young people, they grab the headlines and refocus attention on the need to curb youth violence. Following that event, the U.S. departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Justice led federal delegations that met with various state officials and members of the education and mental health communities to examine issues raised by the shootings.

Among the recommendations they laid out in a report to President Bush was expansion of a CDC program called Choose Respect, which has had a limited goal of preventing dating abuse situations, with the focus on children aged 11 to 14. The report advised that the program be expanded to include “efforts to develop healthy school climates and prevent violence in schools.”

The CDC’s Rita Noonan agrees that it makes sense to use the program to halt overall youth violence. “It goes back to the basic message—how important it is to prevent violence before it ever occurs,” says Noonan.

The report also recommended that the CDC-funded National Academic Centers of Excellence (ACEs) on Youth Violence Prevention work with the CDC to broaden the mission of Choose Respect. ACEs bring academic and community groups together to create violence prevention programs and do research.

Choose Respect is indeed on the agenda for possible future ACE collaborations, says Nancy Guerra, of the ACE at University of California, Riverside. “Choose Respect is exactly the kind of national campaign that we really could bring into the fold of violence prevention more in general, because a lot of violence presumably is about being disrespected,” she says.

Guerra notes, however, that her center focuses on the unique challenges of Latino and immigrant families. For example, Guerra says, one issue that many other programs don’t have to deal with is having parents who don’t speak English and children who do, or parents who don’t understand the school system, because they didn’t grow up going to American schools.

There’s a place for general programs like Choose Respect as well as targeted programs like Guerra’s, but more should be done to coordinate the efforts of both types of programs to achieve the best results, says Mark T. Greenberg, of the Prevention Research Center at Pennsylvania State University. Greenberg developed the praised PATHS program (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies), which helps to reduce aggression and behavioral problems in children.

Not all violence prevention initiatives are equally effective. Schools should do some research before deciding on an approach if they do not have a program in place. One resource that schools can turn to in their assessment is the University of Colorado’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence’s Blueprints program, which puts out a list of model programs.

The programs are listed based on concrete evidence of effectiveness, such as being able to show a deterrent effect or a decrease in undesirable activities (including violence) with quantitative statistics. Programs often develop such statistics through the use of experimental designs that have a control group and random assignment into groups.

Results need to be sustainable as well. The program’s effects must still be evident one year later, says Blueprints Director Sharon Mihalic. And to make sure that the cited effects are replicable, the program must be successfully implemented at more than one.

There were 11 model programs up on the Web site at press time. Mihalic says that other programs may or may not be effective, but there has not been enough evaluation and evidence of their effectiveness to add them to the list.

Among the newer programs that may one day prove effective, says Greenberg, are various teenage stress reduction programs, such as yoga and physical exercise. Whether they will reduce violence remains to be seen.