Eradicating Violence

Researchers reach deep into the community to help build safer neighborhoods and schools.

By Jamie L. Freedman

The headlines say it all. Teenagers from rival gangs stab each other in suburban shopping malls and at high school football games. Students settle disagreements with guns and violence. Backpacks now travel through X-ray machines and students through metal detectors on their way to school. Where will it end?

GW professors are striving to find answers through a number of promising research projects. A shining example is The George Washington University’s Hamilton Fish Institute on School and Community Violence, a national resource for the research and development of school violence prevention strategies. Housed in GW’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, the interdisciplinary research consortium was created in 1997 in honor of the late Hamilton Fish IV, a longtime member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New York state who advocated joint research to eradicate school violence.

“Juvenile justice and the well-being of young people were issues close to his heart,” says Beverly Caffee Glenn, who has directed the institute since 2002. The institute works with a research consortium of eight universities to develop and test violence prevention strategies in urban, rural, and suburban schools across the country. Members include Eastern Kentucky University, Florida State University, Morehouse School of Medicine, University of Oregon, Shenandoah University, Syracuse University, the Trauma Center-Boston, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “We were established to research, develop, and evaluate programs and practices that help to prevent youth violence,” Glenn says. Funded by the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention, the consortium convenes meetings of researchers, issues small grants, fields investigational studies, and coordinates an annual national conference.

“Here at Hamilton Fish, we strive to transfer research into practice,” Glenn says, noting that the institute works closely with D.C. Public Schools. “This summer, we held a young people’s summit of local high school students at the Marvin Center to discuss what the main problems are and what adults can do to help,” she says. “Over pizza, one student shared that his high school was built for 1,800 students but houses 2,700, and that not enough adults in the building care about the students or make them feel safe. It was an insightful meeting.”

Beverly Caffee Glenn is the director of GW’s Hamilton Fish Institute on School and Community Violence, established to research, develop, and evaluate programs and practices that prevent youth violence.

Jessica McConnell

The institute conducted a four-day conference in Philadelphia last year, where some of the nation’s foremost experts on school violence gathered to discuss the most recent means and methods for curbing school violence and implementing innovative programs of prevention. Hamilton Fish hosted this year’s national conference, “Persistently Safe Schools 2006: Collaborating with Students, Families & Communities,” which took place Sept. 19-21 in Washington. “Our annual meeting routinely draws 250 to 400 participants per year,” Glenn says. “This year, we focused on persistently safe schools, because in some cities around the country, there are no safe schools to transfer into. We provide a forum for informative discussions about the state of school violence prevention research, while encouraging partnerships among public, private, and not-for-profit enterprises.”

GW, which serves as the national office of the institute, is working on many levels to make the D.C. Public Schools safe. “Right now, we’re working with a school in Southeast Washington where a student was recently shot in the back and killed,” Glenn says. While there’s no ironclad recipe for success, she says that a number of strategies do help prevent violence. “It’s important that schools implement clear, concise, fair rules that apply to everybody and are fairly applied,” she says. Strong anti-bullying policies are vital. “We know bullying leads to violence,” Glenn states, noting that most school violence occurs between April and June because students have been bullied since September and are eager to get back at their aggressors.

“Our research has found that investing in after-school programs in the humanities, arts, music, drama, and other emotional outlets for young people plays an important role, as does mentoring and engaging in rigorous academic pursuits, regardless of ability,” she continues. “We also know that safe schools enroll 500 students or less, since teachers in small schools know all of the kids by name. Large schools can easily be split into houses, schools within schools, grade-level academies, special programs, and teams of 500 students or less. It’s not an impossibility. It can be done.”

Glenn notes that violence decreases when young people are emotionally and intellectually attached to the adults who run the schools, as well as when adults are around at home for kids to talk to. “Kids who are on their own for hours each day after school are the most likely to get into trouble,” she says. “When kids have activities to engage in and positive role models to interact with, they develop pro-social, rather than anti-social, skills.”

An advocate of universal preschool, Glenn emphasizes that investment in young people pays off. “Every dollar invested in preschool generates $7 in terms of social benefits,” she says.

Glenn cautions that the problem of youth violence cannot be solved with the wave of a magic wand. “We know young people’s judgment is not clear until the ages of 23 to 25,” she explains. “Some 420 juveniles in the District are repeat offenders, and many of them have been sent away 12 times. It’s just a revolving door, because these young people have not yet physically developed the ability to step back and analyze a situation.”

As the institute heads into its 10th year, Glenn is quick to state that school violence is not as rampant as headlines might suggest. “The Centers for Disease Control says that less than 1 percent of violence committed against young people occurs in school, so despite recent headlines, school is still the safest place to be,” she concludes.

As part of the primary intervention program SAFER Latinos, Mark Edberg trains high school seniors to become members of a peer advocate system in local schools.

Jessica McConnell

Just a block down K Street, Mark Edberg, associate professor of prevention and community health, quickly is gaining a national reputation for his research focusing on ways to reduce Latino youth violence in the local community. Funded by a four-year, $2.4 million research grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he is spearheading a study to develop and test a community-based youth violence prevention program in Langley Park, Md., a Washington suburb with a substantial Central American population. “Youth and gang violence has increased substantially over the past decade in Langley Park and other similar communities around the country,” says Edberg, who has spent his career researching violence, HIV, substance abuse, and other high-risk issues.

Together with two community partners—the Council of Latino Agencies and the Latin American Youth Center, Edberg, assisted by Elizabeth Collins, MPH ’04, is implementing a multipronged intervention called SAFER Latinos, a primary prevention program addressing community-level mediating factors that contribute to Latino youth violence.

“Langley Park is impacted by a number of social and demographic factors, including a lack of resources and an influx of refugees/immigrants from Central America,” Edberg says. He points to a number of “funnels” that contribute to youth alienation and violence in Langley Park: a pattern of “sequential family immigration” that erodes family cohesion and leads to a reliance on peer socialization; a language barrier and paucity of culturally appropriate services for immigrant youth, resulting in poor school performance; low awareness/perception of community support; the presence of several major Latino gangs, including the infamous MS-13; and the integration of violence into prevalent youth norms related to status and reputation.

“Informal local data puts the dropout rate for ninth-grade Latino boys in Langley Park at 50 percent or more,” Edberg says. “And the percentage of Latino elementary school students receiving satisfactory ratings on state performance measures in reading, writing, and math is very low (sometimes well below 10 percent in specific areas), with males scoring lower than females, particularly in writing. Because their school success rate is so low, violence very likely plays a heightened role in Latinos gaining status and recognition. Gangs become a social structure through which young people find a sense of belonging. They have your back all the time and become like family. Violence simply becomes a piece of what they have to do to belong and be known.”

A series of events will be held in Langley Park, Md., to show Latino youth that there are better ways to gain respect than through violence.

Jessica McConnell

Edberg’s study, titled “Primary Prevention Addressing Community Factors for Latino Youth Violence,” will utilize a number of techniques aimed at reducing violence in Langley Park by addressing those factors that contribute to it at the community level. Trained Latin American social/health promoters will work with local families, serving as a bridge to facilitate communication between parents and children, as well as between school and parents. To address school issues, a peer advocate system will be put into place, in which successful high school seniors or college students will serve as mediators at the local middle school and high school, intervening when Latino youth are in trouble or considering dropping out and conducting early conflict resolution. A drop-in center will be established in the community, offering free academic support, recreation, counseling, job training, and other youth services. Ongoing community events will be held and public information disseminated, including violence prevention messages and events designed to increase community contact with support services. The Council of Latino Agencies, a regional umbrella organization, will run a series of events aimed at involving community youth in street theater, musical performances, and other activities that provide emotional outlets and show participants that there are better ways to make a name for themselves than through violence.

“At each of these events, as well as at large community-wide events such as Langley Park Day, we plan to invite social services to set up tables, staffed by Spanish speakers, to make linkages to services and address questions of community alienation,” Edberg says. “In combination with that, we’ll be running a media campaign featuring messages on alternatives to violence.

“This is, above all, a community project,” continues Edberg, who came to GW in 2002 and has a joint appointment in anthropology and in public health. “It’s our hope that this type of community-public health approach to dealing with violence will help to reduce youth involvement in gangs and violence and ultimately serve as a model for other communities that might be facing the same situation.”

Currently, Edberg and his team are collecting baseline community data through door-to-door surveys of a random sample of Langley Park Latino residents and simultaneously from a similar sample in the study’s control community in Virginia that will not receive the intervention. “We’re interviewing them on topics like family cohesion, self-reported participation in violence, attitudes to violence, substance abuse, perceived level of community support, and attitudes to school and school dropout, and we will assess this information against school and police data on youth violence,” Edberg says. “We are also conducting focus groups to assess community perceptions of the problem.” Once the interventions are in place, he will monitor results through follow-up surveys, focus groups, police reports, and other data and keep careful documentation so others can replicate the project.

“There are not a lot of programs out there to address the broad interplay of community factors that contribute to youth violence, so I’m pleased and thankful the CDC decided to fund this project,” says Edberg, noting the group funded only three similar projects nationwide. “I hope that this collaborative effort between GW and the community stays in place for a long time.”

Across campus in the psychology building, Sharon Lambert, assistant professor of psychology, is hard at work researching a related topic—how neighborhood crime, violence, and poverty affect children and families. Funded by GW’s Institute for Public Policy, much of Lambert’s work focuses on the effects of exposure to community violence on urban children and adolescents, as well as the risk factors for community violence exposure. “We’re trying to understand what places kids at a greater risk of being exposed to community violence, either as witnesses or victims,” she explains, noting that it is a significant public health problem with rampant negative consequences.

According to Lambert, risk factors for violence exposure include being male, living in a poor, urban area, and associating with deviant or delinquent peers. “There are also behavioral risks we can target in interventions,” she states. To date, Lambert has looked closely at the links between violence exposure and aggression, depression, and anxiety. “We know aggressive behavior places youth at risk for exposure to community violence. Aggressive behavior coupled with depression increases that risk.”

Next on Lambert’s agenda is utilizing the research to build school- and community-based behavioral intervention programs to help protect kids at risk for violence exposure. “My research is mainly focused in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., which both have high rates of violence, crime, and drug activity in poor neighborhoods,” she says. “The big challenge is that, in many poor, low-resource environments with high crime, kids are praised for being aggressive, and violence is the norm. It’s hard to combat that.”

A clinical community psychologist, Lambert came to GW two years ago from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. “I got into this field because I’m interested in understanding how neighborhoods affect children and families,” she explains. “Some families fare well despite challenging situations, while others experience more difficulties. I’d like to find out what makes people resilient to environmental stress, and package those strategies into interventions for youth.”

Lambert says that she hopes to tie together community and clinical interventions, such as offering more after-school activities in poor neighborhoods, to keep kids off the streets. “One of our goals is to increase access to services in the communities that need it most,” she says. “I’m also interested in mapping locations of community risks and resources to better understand risk for exposure to community violence, as well as access and utilization of services.”

She’s quick to state that the research is still in its early days. “The integration of geography and psychology to understand risk and inform intervention is a fairly new field,” she says, “but we’re getting there. By understanding how kids manage neighborhood-related stressors, such as crime, poverty, and access to fewer resources, we can help cut down on community violence exposure and its effects, hopefully soon.”

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© 2007The George Washington University
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