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Preventing Youth Violence

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There is more consensus about how to reduce and prevent school violence than one might think. But is there the political and moral will to carry out the policies that are needed?

Questions about the seriousness of our intentions toward youths have begun to be raised more frequently at gatherings of experts on preventing violence and promoting students' social competence. The problem can be seen, in part, from some of our routine school-violence policies and from our seeming reluctance to enact difficult but research-supported approaches to dealing with violent youths in the schools.

Consider, for example, the practice of suspending disruptive young people from school. What purpose does this serve? I believe it is a way to transfer violence from the schools to the community. Suspension is a one-way ticket to the streets. If many of the kids we suspend can't keep up with work when they are in school, how can they make it up when they have been suspended for five or more days? More to the point, why would they want to?

What we know about violent youths suggests intervention strategies that are more appropriate--for them and for the community.

We know, for example, that children who engage in frequent or extreme acts of violence need to be removed for a time from familiar surroundings--the places where their violent behavior is encouraged, reinforced, condoned, or, at the very least, ignored. These are kids whose parents and neighbors often have assaulted themselves with drugs, or one another with weapons of varying degrees of lethality. These are kids who may have tried to stop the violence around them but who came to believe that survival demanded they learn the local rules of war.

In so-called alternative schools, such as the well-regarded Essex County Educational Services Commission Alternative High School on the campus of Upsala College in New Jersey, there is a recognition of the need to help these troubled youths learn to relate with and become interdependent upon other young people who have also had such problems, and to provide a curriculum that makes sense to them. Subject areas are integrated around themes that these kids can understand: jobs, the problems of urban areas, family issues, getting to know more of the world around them.

Most important, they form relationships with staff people who care about them and their future. These staff members are not indifferent to the students' misbehavior. They are not unmindful of the necessity of teenagers' learning essential academic skills. But, most centrally, they realize their profound role as guides and mentors. They know that their failure may lead the young person in their charge to follow a negative trajectory bound to result in incarceration or death.

The success of alternative schools is based on establishing enduring relationships and making a transformation in the identity of the students, so that they go from hopeless to hopeful and from defeated and sullen to proud and optimistic.

How serious is the problem of violence in our schools and our communities? Think about kids like Jacob Gonzales, a 10-year-old in Detroit who helped another child "set up" a mother of two young children for a robbery that resulted in the woman's death--all for a little over $80.

Jacob took his $20 share of the robbery money and bought some junk food and toys. When he was arrested, he had no sense of having done anything wrong. "It was a game," he said. Can there be any more vivid reason to give efforts at violence prevention our most thoughtful attention?

The problem is too serious and too deeply rooted to be subjected to half-hearted, vaguely conceived, inadequately funded, or poorly monitored interventions. Yet, this is the state of the art today. Existing programs to curb violence in the schools are too limited, too weak, and too often don't reach those in greatest need.

The reasons for this are not mysterious. In the 1970's, we were concerned about "disaffected" youths, kids who sat in school, or perhaps attended sporadically or dropped out, and were unmotivated, disengaged from learning. In the 1980's the focal issue was substance-abuse prevention, as many kids--including the disaffected ones--were turning to self-medications and the peer culture of smoking, marijuana, alcohol, and other drug use as a way of coping with life.

Now we are faced with a rising amount of violence, and, just as bad, with a phenomenon in which kids are actually afraid of other groups of kids largely because they are labeled as "violent." I saw this recently in a school in central New Jersey, where the kids shunned the African-American males because of a strong, media-conveyed stereotype of all black men as violent and volatile. The tragedy of this was amplified by the fact that these were 4th graders.

Kids are crying out to us to do something. When their anguish was quiet, or self-directed, we did not respond with sustained vigor and concern. But now their feelings are turning outward. They are enraged, disenfranchised, and they feel they have little to lose, no futures to compromise. The problem is there for us to see: Schools and communities must be places where all children feel valued, useful, and needed.

The argument that some parents might not be the best role models has, for too long, been an excuse to evade a harsh reality and the tough work that must be done: If the kids are not in a supportive environment, then schools and social systems must develop effective ways to compensate, even as other systems work to change the problematic conditions. What we cannot do is throw away any more generations of children as we "wait and hope" for things to get better.

It is important for educators to applaud and work with community-based efforts at violence prevention. We can draw inspiration, for example, from groups like the Hallmark Corporate Charitable Foundation, which is devoting enormous resources to developing the "Talking With T.J." program. It is targeted at helping kids ages 7 to 10 learn the social-competence skills of teamwork and conflict resolution and social problem-solving.

Hallmark has set up a structure in which a national team of educators, media experts, curriculum writers, scientific advisers, developmentalists, evaluators, and young people have been working with youth organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs, 4-H Clubs, and Girl Scouts, to reach kids in their after-school time, in groups where they feel less turned off, left out, and hopeless than many of them feel at school. This kind of project provides a clear example of what can happen when moral will, armed with the best of our existing knowledge, is mobilized.

Yet no one should argue that these kinds of efforts can be sufficient. Schools have to be places from which viable, positive future pathways for young people can be forged. They must, above all, be places where children can learn to live and get along with one another, and get ready to assume their future roles as responsible citizens of a democracy, as parents, as community leaders, and as productive members of the workforce. And these possibilities must extend equally to all students, regardless of where they live, their culture of origin, their gender, or specific handicaps they might have.

How can this happen? The presence of violence and violence-related problems must do more than spur us to adopt violence-prevention programs. We must join with the National Mental Health Association, the Consortium on the School-Based Promotion of Social Competence, and other groups which urge us to work toward comprehensive health education and the promotion of social competence and life skills in schools and communities. Task forces and think tanks have given us more than enough information to guide this kind of work. To help focus the efforts of those whose political and moral will has only been waiting for a clear sense of direction, here are pivotal areas that, if allowed to go unaddressed, will continue to hold us back:

Every child entering school should have a social-development plan, designed to insure that age-appropriate life skills are being learned throughout the school years.
All those entering the teaching professions must have the skills necessary to carry out life-skills-development work confidently and well, and must see this as a part of their jobs. Certification and hiring practices should reflect this priority.
Because problems will persist in schools while efforts move forward to develop better models and procedures for working with young people, school administrators need to be prepared to be action researchers, considering the collective impact of various programs and educational approaches, working to combine them, and tracking their progress continually, until and even after goals appear to be attained.
Concomitant changes are needed in higher education, in training programs for teachers and school administrators, and in the preparation of special-services staff members. Institutions unwilling and unable to instill the attitudes and skills needed for this task should not be accredited. And the same should be true of the professional training of pediatricians and other family health-care providers.

Finally, I recommend that all schools become centers for parenting support and education. Public-health issues like violence, alcohol and other drug abuse, and aids require public-health solutions--bold, definitive, focused, sustained efforts. The stakes are high: the very identities of our future adult citizens. Our efforts must be correspondingly great.

Maurice J. Elias is a professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. He is also the coordinator of the university's internship program in applied, school, and community psychology, and is the co-founder of the Consortium on the School-Based Promotion of Social Competence.

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