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New Public-Awareness Project Aims To Focus on the 'High-Risk' Young

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New Haven, Conn--Authorities on juvenile crime and delinquency met here last week to plot out a national public-awareness campaign designed to bring new vigor to the fight to save "high risk" youths--and the nation at large--from the devastation of destructive behavior patterns.

Discussions at the first-ever "High-Risk Youth Practicum," held at Yale University, covered many of the problem areas familiar to educators dealing with the so-called at-risk learner: poverty, physical abuse, parental neglect, and other socioeconomic deprivations.

But the relationship of these problems to the group targeted as "high risk"--those likely to turn to drugs and perhaps to crime--was the meeting's chief focus. And it is here, participants said, that schools and other community agencies have too often been willing to turn a blind eye.

"No one has wanted to take responsibility for these kids," said Joyce Thomas, president of the Center for Child Protection and Family Support in Washington. "They are just not a popular constituency. It's not as if we were talking about cute little kids with braces."

accompanied by dramatic research findings--were rising rates among the young of criminal and aggressive behavior and drug abuse.

Convened by the National School Safety Center, based in Encino, Calif., the group of experts will serve as consultants for the public-awareness campaign, set to begin in January. The nssc last month received $250,000 from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to initiate the campaign.

Though the campaign's specifics have yet to be ironed out, the effort will follow up recommendations made by last year by the National Drug Policy Board, an arm of the U.S. Justice Department.

The board's report identified the "high-risk" population as children who, because of such life experiences as abuse or poverty, are likely to abuse drugs or alcohol.

Research, the nssc and others have found, indicates a high correlation between substance abuse and criminal and delinquent behavior among youths.

Participants here spoke of the planned campaign as paralleling--but going beyond--the high-profile "Just Say No" campaign against drugs sponsored by the White House.

It will employ media efforts, including television and radio public-service announcements, national advertising and posters, and an hour-long documentary to be aired on public television stations.

The 18 participants here, who represented a range of agencies and professions dealing with high-risk youths, from law enforcement and social welfare to counseling and the schools, agreed that the campaign's focus should be on "changing attitudes."

The message that must be brought to the public, they concluded, is that the problems of high-risk youths are the problems of everyone those youths come in contact with: families, schools, and their communities.

The campaign will be a necessary "call to action" to increase public support for intervention programs, said Stuart Greenbaum, n.s.s.c. coordinator of the project.

"The whole point," added Pamela Swain, director of research and program development for the federal juvenile-justice office, "is to make public-policy officials aware that there are youth at higher risk than the rest of the youth population."

The National Drug Policy Board's report maps out a national strategy that would coordinate existing youth programs and expand them.

The board has been studying substance abuse among children and youths since April 1987. And, in its report, it identifies 10 factors that increase a child's vulnerability to the lure of drugs:

Having parents who use drugs,

Being the victim of physical, sexual, or psychological abuse,

Dropping out of school,

Becoming pregnant,

Being economically disadvantaged,

Committing a violent or delinquent act,

Experiencing mental-health problems,

Attempting suicide,

Running away from home, and

These same factors place the child at high risk for other antisocial behaviors and will be the target of the public-awareness campaign.

According to Mr. Greenbaum, that effort will be developed around two main themes: that "kids and parents have got to be held responsible for their own choices," and that "we've got to improve family and peer relationships."

He stressed that the campaign will not just identify problems, but will try to offer solutions.

Unlike the "Just Say No" program, he said, "We want to tell people to do something, not just tell them what not to do."

Part of the problem, suggested Roger Weissberg, an associate professor of psychology at Yale, has been the sheer number and diversity of programs attempting to offer solutions to high-risk needs.

Schools, for example, often operate a whole range of prevention programs at once, he said, "depending on what's in vogue."

"It ends up being confusing for children and teachers, and it has no long-term effect," Mr. Weissberg stated.

He predicted that this profusion of uncoordinated efforts would make "the task before us much harder." The campaign must help integrate long-term programs not only for the schools, he noted, but also for communities, parents, and children themselves.

According to Mr. Greenbaum, the strategy most likely to be emphasized in the campaign will be the teaching of "pro-social" skills to high-risk youths, such as conflict resolution.

But the report by the National Drug Policy Board, which was released last November, also gives an indication of the magnitude of the problems facing high-risk children.

Federal crime statistics for 1986 show, for example, that there were 250,000 juveniles arrested for drug-related offenses.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 3 million 12- to 17-year-olds use marijuana or cocaine.

Nearly 2 million children were reported to be victims of neglect or of physical or sexual abuse in 1985, according to the American Humane Association.

More than 1 million teenage girls become pregnant each year, and only half of them complete high school, according to the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

According to the National Governors' Association, the national dropout rate ranges from 14 to 25 percent. And the U.S. Education Department estimates that as many as 80 percent of school dropouts may use illegal drugs on a regular basis.

Several of the practicum participants brought further research insights to the table, both on drug abuse and juvenile delinquency.

Marvin Wolfgang, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania, outlined the results of a major new study of chronic delinquency that he published in August. The study confirmed, he said, his previous research finding that a small percentage of juvenile offenders are responsible for the majority of crimes committed by persons in that age group.

Mr. Wolfgang initially followed the criminal history of a representative sample of 10,000 males born in Philadelphia in 1945. Among those young men, 627--or 7 percent of the sample--had had five or more arrests prior to their 18th birthday. This small group, he said, eventually accounted for 70 percent of the crimes recorded among the 10,000 men studied.

Mr. Wolfgang then repeated the study, following 14,000 men born in 1958, and reached a nearly identical conclusion. He found that 982 juvenile offenders--about 7.5 percent of the sample--had had five or more arrests before age 18. And they accounted for the overwhelming majority of the crimes committed by the group.

More startling, he said, was his finding that, when compared with the first group, the crime rates for those born in 1958 showed a doubling of the incidence of rape and aggravated assault, a tripling of the murder total, and a five-fold increase for robbery.

Both studies found that the earlier delinquency began, the more likely it was to become chronic, he said. Delinquency tends to increase with age, he found, peaking at about age 16.

Recognizing that a multitude of drug-abuse programs already exists--at the national, state, and local levels--the National Drug Policy Board's report formulated its prevention strategy to "build on developments to date and specify ways in which the overall effort can be strengthened."

The report cites the "Just Say No" campaign, saying that "the President and First Lady have provided the leadership to change the national attitude from tolerance of illegal drugs to absolutely no tolerance."

It adds, however, that "to be effective, the national strategy must involve families and communities as well as individuals in reinforcing zero tolerance and accountability."

Parents should themselves be an example of a drug-free lifestyle for high-risk youths, the study states, and communities should be responsible for reinforcing that effort.

In their roles as school leaders, the study recommends, educators should "institute swift, predictable consequences for students found to be involved with illegal drugs or alcohol."

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