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Research: Searching for a Safer Path

By Debra Viadero — May 30, 2001 14 min read
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Identifying what works to prevent youth violence.

A yellowed alphabet banner, the kind that once hung above blackboards everywhere, is still pasted on a classroom wall here at the Regional Alternative Education Program. But the four teenage boys sitting beneath it are learning a different, more modern alphabet today.

Slumping in metal desks that are too small for their adolescent frames, these students learn that the A in this alphabet stands for “anger trigger.” What sets them off? The letter B is for “behavioral reaction;" C stands for “consequences.”

The anger-management ABCs are a regular part of the school week for these students, all of whom are in the alternative program because they have been suspended from or kicked out of their own high schools. One young man’s offense was bringing a knife and a bullet to school. Two others were expelled after taking drugs or bringing them to school. A fourth landed here for pushing a teacher. They come to this school—or are ordered to it by a judge—because the only other educational choice for them is dropping out.

Ellen Delano, a Regional Alternative Education Program teacher, assists 17-year-old John Fischer.
—Allison Shelley

But these students aren’t the only ones learning lessons from what goes on at the program in this historic Virginia town that’s better known for its Colonial houses and Civil War battlefield. Researchers, too, are watching closely. That’s because the program is one of seven experimental projects being financed by the Hamilton Fish National Institute on School and Community Violence, an interdisciplinary research consortium created in 1997 specifically to study violence-prevention programs for young people.

“There are lots of programs out there, and lots of people who think they’re effective, but they’re working from impressions or anecdotal evidence,” says Rickie D. Lovell, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researcher whose work is supported by the institute. “The number of programs that have had rigorous evaluations is very small.”

Institute researchers hope to change all that by zeroing in on programs that already have a good record, developing them further, and rigorously evaluating them with common measurement tools. The researchers, for instance, are required to use the same survey to compare their findings with those for similar groups of students who are not involved in the programs under study. Now, four-plus years into the work, the projects from the first round are poised to begin reporting results later this year on what strategies work, and which ones don’t, in preventing school violence.

“My optimistic belief is that we’ll be able to have several viable models that will be used in other places,” says Stephen A. Rollin, a Florida State University researcher involved in the project. “And these will be models that will be supported empirically and not just by good feelings.”

Research Predates High-Profile Shootings

The tragic string of shootings in middle schools and high schools from California to Mississippi over the past four years has indelibly etched the problem of school violence onto the national consciousness.

But the Hamilton Fish consortium’s efforts to study the problem predate all those highly publicized incidents. In the early 1990s, when the institute was forming, the after-effects of crack-cocaine disputes and gang rivalries characterized much of the weapons-related violence that was claiming the lives of young people. And most of those deaths were occurring in inner-city neighborhoods—not the suburban neighborhoods surrounding schools like Columbine High in Jefferson County, Colo., or Santana High School in Santee, Calif. Both schools attracted national headlines more recently when they became the scenes of mass shootings perpetrated by one or two teenage gunmen.

Institute researchers hope to strengthen violence-prevention efforts by zeroing in on programs that already have a good record and rigorously evaluating them.

The impetus for the consortium came from the late Hamilton Fish, a longtime member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New York state. Fish prodded researchers from George Washington University in Washington to think about forging links with other scholars around the country who were working on preventing school violence.

Now financed with $3.6 million from the U.S. Department of Justice’s office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention, the consortium that bears the congressman’s name comprises: Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky.; Florida State University in Tallahassee; Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta; Syracuse University in New York; the University of Oregon in Eugene; and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The collective work draws on the expertise of scholars in education, behavioral science, juvenile justice, special education, and health promotion, among other disciplines.

Besides alternative schools like the one here in Fredericksburg, the projects under study range from a career-internship program for potentially troubled middle school students in Florida to schoolwide violence-prevention programs in inner-city Atlanta and rural eastern Kentucky to a school-within-a- school in suburban Springfield, Ore., where a school shooting claimed the lives of two teenagers in 1998."We’re not wedded to the programs. We’re just trying to get to the bottom line,” says Paul M. Kingery, the director of the institute, which is housed in GWU’s graduate school of education and human development. “If there’s a weak program, we’ll say it’s weak and here’s where you need to make changes.”

Deborah Jennings, the lead researcher evaluating the Regional Alternative Education Program, stands near a poster made by students. She says it’s helpful for children to see their expressions when they are angry.
—Allison Shelley

The Hamilton Fish Institute is not alone in seeing the need for better research on school violence. The Center for the Study of Prevention of Violence, launched in 1992 at the University of Colorado in Boulder with money from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, also pays for studies and analyzes the research supporting school-violence-prevention programs. And research reviews of promising programs have been published in recent years by groups and individuals ranging from the U.S. surgeon general to the American Youth Policy Forum, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

What’s unique about the Hamilton Fish consortium is that all seven projects are using the same survey to gauge the effectiveness of the projects they test. The idea is to build a sort of meta-analysis, a study that analyzes the accumulated effects of many other studies, from the ground up.

The institute also attempts to take a long-term view of program success by building in time for strategies to be crafted and implemented in schools and then studying them for a full two years.

“We set out from the outset believing that behavioral change takes longer, and a year is not a fair assessment,” Kingery says.

‘In the Real World’

Another hallmark of the program is its effort to cobble together several different credible strategies—an anger- management program here or a violence-prevention curriculum there—and tailor them to the needs of the schools and districts under its microscope.

“We’re at a point in time when we need to demonstrate what happens with multilayer components,” says Jeffrey R. Sprague, a University of Oregon researcher involved in the consortium. “Basically, in the real world, schools are going to do everything they can to help a kid.”

That characteristic may well be the program’s “cutting edge,” says James P. Griffin Jr., a researcher and behavioral scientist at the Morehouse School of Medicine who is spearheading a consortium project in an Atlanta middle school.

‘We’re not wedded to the programs. We’re just trying to get to the bottom line.’

Paul M. Kingery,
Hamilton Fish National
Institute on School and Community Violence

“We know a lot about what works from some of the meta-analyses,” he says. “What we’ll know in addition to that when we couple some of these components together is what kind of synergies you get.”

Here in Fredericksburg, the already- established component is the Regional Alternative Education Program itself, an alternative school housed in a rundown 1930s-era school building near the site of the Civil War battlefield. Begun just over six years ago, the school takes in students from 11 high schools in five contiguous school districts in the suburbs and rural counties of north-central Virginia.

Students in the program pursue their schoolwork at their own pace with guidance from program teachers. A counselor is also on staff to defuse conflicts or talk with students who seek her help. About three-quarters of the students who enter the school either return to their regular high schools or graduate with alternative diplomas.

Watching Anger Erupt

When Hamilton Fish researchers came here, they first added a security camera to the program. Mounted in a hallway above the school’s snack machine, the camera is there to deter any altercations or record conversations between staff members and students. But it also provides an educational benefit, says Deborah Jennings, the project’s current lead researcher.

“Students can see what they look like when they get mad, and how they show disrespect for others,” she says. “Some of these kids have no conception how they come across.”

Researcher Deborah Jennings, center left, and counselor Liz A. Green join students from the Regional Alternative Education Program, which serves teenagers from north-central Virginia.
—Allison Shelley

With input from the school’s counselor, the consortium also brought in Positive Adolescent Choices Training, or PACT, the anger-management program in which the students described earlier were participating. As part of the program, which was developed at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., students volunteer to meet in a small group once or twice a week to learn how to recognize their anger, identify what triggers it, and master strategies for handling it better.

“It gives me a chance to establish relationships with kids who might not otherwise seek me out,” says Liz A. Green, the school counselor. She runs the school’s PACT sessions, which last about eight weeks.

Comparing Students

Besides the required consortiumwide surveys, the ongoing assessment of the program will include more descriptive, qualitative evaluations by Jennings, who is at the school every day. The survey statistics will also be compared with those for a group of students in nearby Stafford High School who have similar behavioral and academic characteristics but, as Jennings points out, never got into enough trouble to be referred to the alternative program.

Local school officials welcomed the help. “We don’t have a staff of statistical evaluators,” says G. Scott Walker, the director of alternative programs and student services for the 21,000-student Stafford County school district, which oversees the regional program. “This is helping us verify that we are doing a good job.”

‘Some of these kids have no conception how they come across.’

Deborah Jennings,
Lead researcher,
National Institute on School and Community Violence

While researchers are still analyzing the data on the revamped programs’ success, students say the time away from the regular school environment has given them a better focus.

“It’s helped me pass 9th grade,” says one boy who has spent the entire school year here.

Even students who are unhappy with the program’s strict rules, aging facilities, and dearth of female classmates concede the program has a deterrent effect.

“After you’ve seen this place, after you’ve suffered this place, like, you won’t want to go back,” says one teenager in the PACT group.

Alternative programs are an important piece of the national research effort because they are fast becoming the violence- prevention method du jour in districts around the country—partly as a result of zero-tolerance policies for students coming to school with drugs or weapons. National statistics show that the number of violent crimes on school campuses is declining, while studies show that suspensions and expulsions are at an all-time high.

“One of the problems we’re finding is how do you pass on to the regular school the knowledge that students have changed from the way they were? How do you get support for the fact that students are practicing their new prosocial skills?” says Joan N. Burstyn, a Syracuse University professor of education and cultural foundations who is studying an alternative school in her city for students suspended or expelled for carrying weapons.

Unlike the Fredericksburg school, the Violence Is Not the Answer, or VINTA, alternative school draws mostly African-American students in grades 6-12 from inner-city Syracuse. The Hamilton Fish team modified the program by establishing a schoolwide discipline program and setting up mandatory classes on positive social skills and anger management for all students.

A smaller number of VINTA students practice their newfound skills in an art lab. Their task is to complete a project, such as a sculpture made of newspapers, by working together and asking adults for help. The adults who work with them, though, are trained not to help unless they are properly asked.

“Students have to learn how to ask to get what they want, how to collaborate, and praise one another,” Burstyn explains.

Florida researchers in the consortium, on the other hand, are studying strategies for intervening in students’ lives before they get into the kind of trouble that lands them in an alternative school.

Behavior Contracts and Caring Adults

As part of his study, Rollin and his Florida State colleagues are working with potentially troubled 8th graders in middle schools in Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, and Tampa. The participating students spend up to 10 hours a week working in career internships in the community. In preparation for their workplace assignments, the students also take a four-week elective course in which they learn how to dress and behave on the job. They also sign behavioral contracts and can earn a small stipend of $30 if they show up for work on a regular basis.

The approach, Rollin says, benefits students in several ways.

Students in the program have had fewer disciplinary referrals and suspensions than their peers in nonparticipating schools.

“The kids have value, and the work they do is valuable to others,” he says. “They get to engage themselves in a practical kind of hands-on operation which, for many of these kids, seems to be the way they learn best. And, finally, they have a set of caring adults in their lives that really pay close attention to them.”

So far, preliminary findings have shown, students in the program have had fewer disciplinary referrals and suspensions than their peers in nonparticipating schools. (The differences were statistically significant at only two of the three schools, however.)

Teachers, on the other hand, are the target of the violence-prevention project being tried out in a middle school and a high school in Milwaukee, Wis. In that city, researchers are training teachers to use a classroom-management strategy that emphasizes teaching students clear rules and procedures.

“The reality that we’re finding with teachers, especially younger ones, is that they have so much to do in trying to get themselves underway that they don’t really come out of education school with solid strategies for managing the issues they’re going to confront,” says Lovell, a co-principal investigator of that project.

Although the final reports on all of the projects are still months away, researchers say one theme they have all stumbled across in their work has been a discrepancy between the numbers of disruptive or violent incidents that schools report and the data they get on student surveys.

“We find the numbers reported by administrators are really, for the most part, lower than what students are reporting,” says Joy S. Renfro, an associate professor in the department of health promotion and information at Eastern Kentucky University. She is the lead researcher on the schoolwide violence-prevention project at a middle school in that region.

“Sure, some of that may be that students are exaggerating,” Renfro continues, “but I don’t think all of it is.”

Researchers at two of the sites also say their findings have convinced them that bullying and harassment play a larger role in school violence than educators once thought. The students they work with who are considered most at risk for violent behavior are those who report the highest incidences of having been bullied or of bullying others themselves.

The biggest difficulty for the consortium has been persuading educators to set aside precious time in the school day for their projects. Pressed by increasing demands to produce higher student test scores, educators sometimes feel they can ill afford to give up time for anything other than academics.

But in the end, says Burstyn of Syracuse, “schools have to be involved with the prevention of violence. The ways in which you interact with other people affects your ability to learn.”

The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week as Research: Searching for a Safer Path


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