It's every principal's nightmare. The sound of gunshots. The phone call imploring you to rush to the cafeteria where an argument that began on the street has exploded. And when the ambulance and the police have gone there will be television cameras, microphones, and reporters' questions, a deluge of phone calls from frightened parents, and an emergency school board meeting. The question you will hear over and over is "What are you going to do to make sure this does not happen again?"
An increasing number of public and private school administrators face situations involving serious violence perpetrated by and against adolescents. School officials are responding by adding violence prevention programs—often a commercially available "off-the-shelf" package—to their schools' already overcrowded curricula. But few administrators under pressure to "do something" about violence have the resources or the expertise to assess the extent of their school's violence problem, to judge whether the program they have chosen is appropriate for their students, or to find evidence that the program actually works. In fact, researchers are beginning to question whether the most commonly used school-based programs for violence prevention and conflict resolution actually do what they are supposed to do.
More Harm Than Good?
Most evaluations of these programs reveal little evidence of success. Daniel Webster of the Injury Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins University reviewed evaluations of three widely used curricula—the Violence Prevention Curriculum for Adolescents by Deborah Prothrow-Stith, the Washington (D.C.) Community Violence Prevention Program, and Positive Adolescent Choices Training—and found "no evidence that such programs produce long-term changes in violent behavior or risk of victimization." Indeed, Webster argues that the main function of these programs is to provide "political cover" for school officials and politicians, and that they may do more harm than good by distracting the public from the real causes of youth violence.
A survey of 51 programs by Renee Wilson-Brewer and colleagues at the Education Development Center (EDC) in Newton, Massachusetts, found that fewer than half even claimed to have reduced levels of violence. Most claimed to have had effects that program staff members assumed would help prevent violence, such as creating community awareness or having a substantial number of students complete the program, but few had any data to back up their assumptions.
Nancy Guerra and Patrick Tolan of the University of Illinois reviewed the existing research and identified some promising strategies warranting further study, but concluded that "well-intentioned efforts are being applied to many children and adolescents without indication of their effects.... Not only have programs that have been earnestly launched been ineffective, but some of our seemingly best ideas have led to worsening the behavior of those subjected to the intervention." This disturbing negative effect, Guerra explains, results from the difficulty of identifying high-risk students. Kids who are wrongly placed in targeted violence prevention programs (which, ironically, seem to have the greatest impact) may become more violence-prone than if they had not been exposed to the programs.
Defenders of the programs blame the lack of evidence of their success on the shortcomings of the evaluations. It is true that few programs have the resources and expertise necessary for evaluating behavioral outcomes and for long-term follow-up. Most evaluations lack adequate sample sizes, matched comparison groups, and objective measures of behavioral outcomes. Many use tests of student attitudes or self-reported behavior that measure little but the students' ability to give the answers expected of them.
Evaluations based on teachers' classroom observations are equally suspect. Guerra warns that "testimonials should not be confused with evaluations." Well-meaning teachers may "see" a reduction in violence among students where none exists. Or, driven by honest concern and media attention, they may exaggerate the levels of violence that existed before their intervention. Evaluations based on "objective" behavioral outcomes like discipline and arrest records are at the mercy of the inconsistencies of school discipline policies and the juvenile justice system.
Flaws in the Design
Researchers are beginning to suspect that the lack of evidence for success in violence prevention is not just because of inadequate evaluation efforts. Many programs have serious flaws that make them highly unlikely to overcome the inherent difficulties of changing complex human behavior. Too often, they lump together a broad range of behaviors and people, ignoring the fact that different types of people turn to violence for very different reasons.
Few school-based prevention programs target the relatively small group of young people who commit acts of serious violence. Daniel Webster points out that many conflict resolution programs teach the kinds of negotiation skills that may be useful for middle-class students whose disputes stem from competing interests, but not for poor, high-risk youth for whom violent conflict is often a result of macho posturing and competition for status. Nancy Guerra similarly criticizes the notion that a program reflecting middle-class norms will affect the behavior of all violent youth. "A sixteen-year-old who sticks up a McDonald's," she notes, "does not have a conflict with the person behind the cash register."
The field of violence prevention faces an even greater challenge than learning how to target its programs: the inherent difficulty of creating and implementing any school-based program that actually changes behavior. Alcohol- and drug-abuse prevention efforts have been subjected to more research, better evaluation, and wider and more consistent implementation than violence prevention programs, yet serious questions remain about the effectiveness of many widely used programs.
This is not to say that alcohol- and drug-abuse prevention efforts never work. Nancy Tobler of the State University of New York examined the evaluations of almost 150 programs and found some that were effective. But the key to success, she says, is knowing "which types of programs should be offered to whom, by whom, and at what age." Programs must take into account the age group being targeted, the drugs being targeted, the selection and training of leaders, and the influence of the community. Many alcohol and drug programs, and most violence prevention programs, ignore these critical variables.
Violence often results from a complex interaction of environmental, social, and psychological factors such as the learned behavior of responding to conflict with violence, the effects of drugs or alcohol, the presence of weapons, the absence of positive family relationships and adult supervision. Few violence prevention programs can muster the resources to affect all the possible causes.
Behavioral skills learned in school health classes and substance abuse prevention programs generally suffer a marked decline after six months. The key to providing students with the skills, knowledge, and motivation they require to become healthy adults is a comprehensive program that responds to the new risks and pressures that arise with each developmental stage. The onset of puberty, the increased presence of alcohol, drugs, and weapons in a young person's environment, and growing economic pressures all increase the risk of being a perpetrator or a victim of violence. A violence prevention program that takes place over a couple of weeks at one grade level has little hope of success. Addressing these risks requires a sustained effort over the child's entire school career.
Educators have neither the resources nor the responsibility to change all the social factors that impel young people toward violence. But they do have the power to make some changes in their schools. Children at high risk of violence, academic failure, drug abuse, and dropping out often lack a connection to any positive social entity—family, peer group, or church. Guerra and Tolan found that many of the most promising strategies were family interventions that taught parenting skills and improved family relationships. They also found evidence to suggest that effective school-based programs should focus not just on students but on the school itself as well.
Schools that provide a positive social attachment for youth can, at least in part, lessen the estrangement and hopelessness that leads kids to the alternative culture of gangs. Daniel Webster suggests assigning teams of teachers to follow cohorts of students through several grades, instead of changing teachers every year. This, he argues, can create more positive and lasting bonds between students and their school. Webster also suggests keeping schools open for supervised extracurricular activities on afternoons, evenings, and weekends, and during the summer. Keeping students away from the streets, gangs, drugs, and boredom for even a few hours after classes will at least diminish the amount of time that the negative influences have to do their work. At the same time, there is no hard evidence from evaluations that such strategies actually work better than others.
Schools may also have a part to play in protecting students from risks they encounter outside the classroom. Some researchers have attributed the dramatic increase in serious violence among youth to two intersecting trends: a large increase in the population of young men (the group that commits most violent crimes) and the unprecedented availability and acceptability of guns—especially semi-automatic handguns. The presence of a gun can lead to violence in situations where the presence of a different weapon, even a knife, will not. Obviously, a bullet fired in anger can cause more injury than a punch or slap.
Increased attention is being focused on school-based programs to steer youth away from carrying guns and associating with those who do. While there is no good evidence as yet about how well such programs work, the fact that they require less of a behavioral change on the part of students than some other approaches may be cause for optimism. On the other hand, these gun programs cannot be thought of as a substitute for what has become an almost universally accepted maxim in the public health community—that the most effective intervention for serious violence would be to outlaw the possession, manufacture, and sale of these weapons.
Television, movies, rap music, and video games are frequently criticized for their violent content and its presumed ill effects on young people. Much of this criticism is simplistic and ignores the more complex causes of violence. Still, the research on violence and the media (including that on sexual violence and pornography) indicates that a consistent depiction of violence as an acceptable method of resolving conflicts or increasing status and self-esteem contributes to the forces that impel so many youth toward this behavior. Critical viewing and media literacy programs that teach children how to interpret what they see and hear may be of some help.
Let the Buyer Beware
While violence prevention programs are not the solution, carefully designed, targeted, and implemented programs with good teacher training and technical support may be part of the solution. The Tolan-Guerra and EDC reviews suggest that strategies including cognitive mediation programs (in which young people are taught to change those habits of thought that lead them to respond violently to conflict) have shown some success in changing behavior. Webster, however, questions the potential of classroom interventions for changing habits acquired much earlier in life.
Whatever the merits of school-based violence prevention programs, there is no value in implementing the wrong program for the wrong reasons. Administrators should carefully assess their needs before adopting any program. Nancy Guerra reminds school officials that "one incident does not make a problem." One student caught with a gun does not necessarily mean your school needs metal detectors. If half the students are packing weapons, however, metal detectors can help provide a more secure environment.
Guerra also warns administrators to be careful consumers and not just grab the first program that comes across their desks. In many cases, she says, "whatever program has the glossiest cover and the best marketing plan gets implemented." She points out that ineffective programs can be dangerous if administrators and parents are lulled into thinking they are addressing the problem when they are not. Informed choices and effective strategies require input from parents, teachers, law enforcement agencies, and medical, public health, and social service personnel.
A good model at the state level is Illinois, which has amended its School Code to require districts to provide violence prevention or conflict resolution education in grades 4 through 12. As part of the effort, the Illinois Council for the Prevention of Violence has established a curriculum task force including representatives of a wide range of state and local groups. The task force is creating a framework for reviewing violence prevention curricula, identifying gaps, and making recommendations for the use of such curricula in Illinois schools. It will also pilot violence prevention programs in five districts to determine what kinds of technical assistance and other resources are most helpful.
The Power of Social Decay
We must also be realistic about the strength of the social forces that impel children towards violence. Even long-term educational interventions are not sufficient for children in neighborhoods whose economies and social structures are in ruins. Thus school health programs are increasingly being supplemented by breakfast and lunch programs and school-based health services. Violence prevention may prove most effective when it is one of a number of services offered as part of a "full-service school."
But violence is not like malnutrition or infectious diseases. Immunization in a school clinic can protect a child from measles. A good school breakfast and lunch can help make up for the lack of any dinner. But a ten-session violence prevention course cannot overcome the deprivations of a life of poverty or the pressures toward violence in the world outside school.
The burden of preventing violence cannot lie solely, or even primarily, on the shoulders of educators. Webster points out that many violence prevention programs assume there is "something wrong with the kids" that we can fix with educational intervention. A truer understanding of what is really wrong can be found in President Lyndon Johnson's address to the nation in July 1967, in the wake of a wave of urban violence:
"The only genuine, long-range solution for what has happened lies in an attack—mounted at every level—upon the conditions that breed despair and violence. All of us know what those conditions are: ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs. We should attack these conditions—not because we are frightened by conflict, but because we are fired by conscience. We should attack them because there is simply no other way to achieve a decent and orderly society in America."
Marc Posner conducts research in health promotion and risk prevention at the Education Development Center in Newton, Massachusetts.