Online NewsLetter

Teen Violence: A Search for Solutions

The middle-aged woman in the BMW reached in her purse for change and rolled down the window. As one boy handed her a paper, the youth on the other side shattered the window and grabbed the purse in one motion. Youth violence has become increasingly common in both urban and rural settings. FBI statistics reveal that, among youth aged 10 to 17, arrests for murder, robbery and assault increased 50 percent between 1988 and 1992. Of 2,508 school children interviewed in a 1993 Harris poll, 15 percent said they had carried a gun within the past 30 days. Almost 10 percent said they had shot at someone and a slightly higher number said they had been the target of a gunshot. Teen violence has become a major issue in America, and, while there is little consensus as to causes or solutions, parents, teachers and politicians agree that something must be done. Most school officials feel the need to make a strong statement, at the very least expelling a student found carrying a weapon. About 25 percent of urban school districts now use metal detectors to screen for weapons. New York City schools hire about 2,600 persons whose sole job is to keep the peace. Yet even at schools with metal detectors a significant percentage of students still carry guns while others retrieve them as soon as they leave the grounds. Even if it makes hallways safer, weapons detection has little effect on the overall problem of youth crime. A youngster expelled for carrying a gun will become even more alienated and dangerous. Over the long term, experts see education and prevention as far more important than policing measures. Children, brought up on romanticized TV and video game violence need to understand the realistic consequences of violence--blood, pain, jail cells and life in a wheelchair. A school-based prevention program, "Straight Talk about Risks," has been introduced in cities such as New York, San Diego, Los Angeles and Oakland. Among other things it teaches children safe behavior around weapons and strategies for resisting peer pressure. Targeting Gang Activity Much, but not all, teen violence is related to gang activity. Ignoring the presence of a gang or giving in to its pressures can have disastrous consequences in a school or community. And when gangs are allowed to flourish, it's useless to expect youth to "just say no." On the other hand, efforts to "get tough" on gangs have been largely counter-productive. Banning gang colors or symbols may serve merely to increase gang allegiance and raise the level of confrontation. When Los Angeles police tried large-scale sweeps and arrests of gang members, they found that gangs became even more powerful and destructive than before. Sociology professor Alan McEvoy, writing in The Education Digest, suggests: 1) creating a neutral environment, and 2) providing attractive alternatives to gang activity. Most important, he feels, adults should try to understand the appeal gangs have to youth and to recognize the differences between individual gangs. "To keep the school from becoming a war zone, school officials must maintain communication with all rival groups," McEvoy writes. "Trusted faculty and students should meet regularly with representatives of gangs to. . .agree to a timetable of gradual de-escalation, coupled with incentives for good behavior." Midnight basketball and other extracurricular activities, at night as well as during the school day, can offer constructive alternatives to gang members and those at risk of gang involvement. An intramural sports team or music group that cuts across gang affiliations may be the only reason some students stay in school and out of trouble. Gang members and other troubled youth frequently have leadership qualities and, given responsibility, can become positive role models for other youth. Fifth and sixth graders trained in conflict resolution can mediate disputes and teach younger children how to say no to negative peer pressures, recognize the warning signs of potentially violent situations and use nonviolent ways to solve conflicts. Children most likely to stay out of trouble have good problem-solving and communication skills--those trained to listen, respond, empathize and teach others. Such skills must be taught early on and integrated with classroom learning. Public Health Prevention Model The first step in the Violence Prevention Curriculum for Adolescents developed by Deborah Prothrow-Stith of the Harvard School is to deglamorize violence, focus on the dangers and introduce an alternative notion of heroism-nonviolent problem-solving. Children at risk of violence--such as those suspended from school for fighting--are taught ways of modifying their behavior. Students are encouraged to accept their anger and become intentional and creative about their responses to it. Finally, for persistent violent offenders, rehabilitation programs may be necessary. As with other public health problems, early intervention is always safer and less expensive. Adolescent violence is a complex problem that must be addressed early and often in the school, the home and the community.


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