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Youth Violence can be Prevented
Richard E. Ruhrold, Ph.D., HSPP
Vice President for Clinical Services
The recent attacks on our country have understandably heightened citizens’ concerns about violence and personal safety. Threats of harm originate, however, not only from abroad, but far more often from within our own community.
Violence among our youth remains a profound social problem. While statistics about youth violence are sobering, we have reason to remain optimistic. Examples exist of communities that have successfully come together to limit youth violence, to renew hope and to prevent tragic loss of young life.
How serious is the problem of youth violence? Consider the following data…
According to data published by the National Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 1997, 6,146 young people 15-24 years old were victims of homicide. This is an average of 17 youth homicide victims per day.
After accidents, homicide is the second leading cause of death for persons 15-24 years of age in the U.S.
The United States has the highest rates of childhood homicide and suicide among the 26 most industrialized countries of the world.
In the decade extending from 1983 to 1993, there was a dramatic increase in the frequency of youth violence. By 1999, however, arrest rates for homicide, rape and robbery had all dropped below 1983 rates. While this is cause for hope, rates of youth violence remain alarmingly high.
Many readers may be aware that in late November, police in New Bedford, Massachusetts, foiled a Columbine-like plot at a local high school. Five students were arrested for allegedly planning a massacre at their school. Events like this give our schools an undeserved "black eye." Compared to home and community, our schools are very safe. Consider these data: According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 35 homicides and seven suicides occurred in our nation’s schools among children age 5-19 years between July 1997 and June 1998. During the same time period, 2,717 homicides and 2,054 suicides occurred among the same age group in other settings.
While serious school violence is rare, we may still wonder whether "another Columbine" could happen here in rural Indiana. It would be foolish to deny the possibility. The same risk factors present in well-publicized killings and near-tragedies exist here in our own community. Consensus exists among researchers, educators, healthcare professionals and law enforcement officials about the factors that put youth at risk for violence. Such risk factors include, but are not limited to…
* Weak ties to family, organizations and healthy peers
* "Hanging" with a delinquent or fringe peer group
* Alcohol and drug abuse
* A history of aggressive behavior
* Parent substance abuse
* Verbal and physical violence in the home
* Bullying or being bullied
* Excessive exposure to violent media or video games
Most thoughtful people agree that we have a serious problem youth violence. The next logical question is, "What can we do about it?" There are no quick fixes, but positive change can be realized if we approach the problem the right way. For a model of success, we can look to the city of Boston, Massachusetts. In the mid-1980’s, Boston had one of the highest rates of youth homicide in the U.S. In response, community leaders joined together and launched a grassroots initiative to combat youth violence. This work continues to this day. Their efforts were so successful that in the late 1990’s, Boston experienced a period of two full years without a single youth homicide.
Dr. Howard Spivak is Professor of Pediatric and Community Health at Tufts University in Boston. He has been one of the leaders of the Boston initiative from its inception. Boston’s success began with almost two years of dialogue – just talking. Leaders of the Boston initiative met with government leaders, law enforcement, pastors, Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs staff, educators, concerned youth – anyone who would listen and who might be concerned about violence among the city’s youth. Out of this dialogue, grew many creative solution efforts. Most of these initiatives were common sense attempts to make a "small" difference in the lives of local kids. These "snowflakes" grew into the avalanche that transformed a culture of violence.
Informed by his experience, Dr. Spivak has stated that to successfully combat youth violence, we must consider certain proven principles:
We have to believe that violence is preventable
We must broaden our scope beyond the school setting. By far, most youth violence occurs at home or in the community.
Youth must be key participants in any violence reduction initiatives. If this is an "adults only" effort, it is doomed to failure.
We have to take a grassroots approach. Existing community resources and organizations (such as churches, schools, Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs) are key participants.
Smalls steps add up to big change. Every little bit helps!
No one person, institution, or program will fix this problem.
Institutionally based programs don’t work. We have to connect with high risk kids and their parents on their own turf -- in the community and in their homes.
We must work to prevent violence instead of just reacting after it has already happened.
These principles are exemplified in some true life examples…
Reverend Bruce Wall, pastor of a large Baptist congregation in Boston began including instruction in peaceful conflict resolution in his sermons. He opened the church for more evening and weekend youth activities. When Pastor Wall realized he was only reaching the "good" kid, he quit his job and started a street ministry out of an old skating rink. Over time, he developed an organized group of 300 high risk youth who have united as leaders in violence prevention.
The 10-Point Ecumenical Coalition. A group of ministers started a "street corner ministry". They can sometimes be seen connecting with kids at 2 or 3 in the morning...
Dr. Jeanine Taylor, a psychologist, brought together people who had lost young family members to violence. The group evolved into "Living after Murder" a grassroots organization working to encourage and support government and community efforts to reduce violence among youth.
Dr. Peter Stringan, a family practice physician, began doing violence prevention counseling during routine appointments with kids and parents. He counseled his patients on such topics as the risk of guns in the home and the dangers of watching too much TV violence. He provided information about non-violent conflict resolution.
Michael McDonald is a young man who lost four or his siblings to violence, one to suicide and three to homicide. He grew up in a very violent family and community. At age 19, Michael began meeting with local social services leaders and initiated several youth programs aimed at preventing more of the kind of tragedy that he had suffered.
In the wake of September 11th, we have all been sensitized to the destructive power of anger expressed in violence. Less spectacular and less visible are the acts of violence that take place every day in our own community.
Our children are among those at greatest risk to be both perpetrators and victims of such violence. If we truly believe that our children are our greatest resource, than we ought to think – think HARD -- about youth violence and begin to discuss how we can follow the example of Boston and impact our community for peace. Everywhere we go these days we see billboards and posters that declare "United we stand!" True. Perhaps we should apply this credo, not only to the arena of international politics, but to our homes, our schools and our community and take a united stand against the violence that takes too many of our kids as its victim.