Turning the corner on youth violence

Photo by Nikko Macaspac

I’ll never forget the day after my honeymoon ended.

While my wife and I enjoyed a week away, Tom had been the point person for our large-group Wednesday night ministry.  At first things started out fine.  But then some of the kids from down the street showed up.  We had been attracting more of the “rough crowd” for a few months, and for the most part this had opened up some exciting new ministry opportunities for our team.  We had set up new volunteer responsibilities, like assigning someone to periodically check the alley across the street for kids who snuck over to smoke pot before youth group.  But we hadn’t really taken on the violence issue before—we were kind of holding our breath and hoping it wouldn’t surface.

Tom got to initiate our approach to violence that Wednesday when a couple of guys began fighting in the stairwell of our youth building.  Not only were they non-responsive to his interventions, but they heated up their fighting out in the front yard—right about the time the younger kids and parents started coming out of the adjacent church building.  The situation ended with the boys walking away screaming that they were going to find and kill Tom and his family.

The honeymoon was definitely over.

The next few weeks our ministry had to work through tough issues like when and how to involve the police, when to get a restraining order to keep kids away from church for a while, how to work with non-responsive parents of violent students, and how to re-create a safe environment for the youth and families in our ministry.  Not to mention creating a strategy for bringing some healing and reconciliation both for these guys and for Tom.

In search of the real story about youth violence

Between our own encounters with violence and the reports we see in the media, many youth workers and parents wonder, has youth violence actually increased, or is that another inaccurate media portrayal?  What are the real issues surrounding youth violence in the U.S., and how can we respond?

To strengthen our research-based perspective on violence at the Fuller Youth Institute, we asked for help from Dr. Sofia Herrera, the Research Coordinator for the Fuller Youth Initiative for Positive Youth Development and Violence Prevention. [Doctoral fellows assisting in this research: Hana Carmona, Kevin Newgren, & Lara Sando. The Initiative grant was funded by award #2002-JN-FX-K2002 from the United States Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.] The Initiative was a federally-funded research program designed to increase understanding of individual community factors that promote well-being and prevent risk and violence among children and adolescents.  They’ve helped us put together the following responses to some key questions that suburban, urban, small-town and rural youth workers are asking about violence among kids.

Key Question 1:  Is there an upsurge in youth violence in the U.S., or does it just appear that way because of media attention?

Actually, both.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crimes on the whole (murder, rape and sexual assault, robbery, and assault) in the U.S. have declined since 1994. Likewise, the juvenile violent crime arrest rate has steadily declined and is now lower than it was before the 1980’s.

While overall this is a positive trend, the news for girls and for younger kids isn’t as positive.  The most recent information on youth violence indicates that today’s youth offenders include an increasing number of females and kids between 10 and 12 years of age who are arrested for violence and drug offenses. [Snyder, H.N., & Sickmund, M. (2006). Juvenile offenders and victims: 2006 national report (NCJ 212906). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.]

This means that if the media and news reports have led us to believe that violence is getting worse, this perspective is distorted.  This does not mean, however, that the media is completely wrong.  Youth violence has become more localized to certain neighborhoods and sometimes areas within neighborhoods, particularly in urban settings.  So in 2005, urban residents experienced more violence than suburban residents, with rural residents having the lowest rates. [Bureau of Justice Statistics] The latest data indicates that gangs have decreased in the United States in suburban areas while they have not decreased in urban centers.

Unfortunately, the media also reports more on the bad news than the good news. While it’s important to know what is not going well with youth, particularly in neighborhoods where violence is prevalent, it’s also important to know what is going well and what helps them thrive. There are kids in urban settings who are committed to a life of non-violence and who contribute to their school, church, and community. Not only that, but there are adults who have suffered the consequences of violence personally and have decided as a result to turn their neighborhood around by advocating and creating safe places for kids.

Key Question 2: What factors tend to contribute to a teenager becoming violent?

There are a number of influences that could lead a kid down the path to violence.  These influences are often referred to in the research world as “risk factors”.  The presence of risk factors in someone’s life does not necessarily determine that they will become violent—these are counterbalanced by “protective factors”.  Risk factors include both biological and environmental issues.  An example of a biological risk factor is the presence of neuropsychological problems.  That might influence a teenager’s ability to problem-solve without violence, to control impulsive behaviors or to regulate their emotions.

Environmental issues might include rocky parenting (poor parent-child relationships, lack of appropriate supervision, lack of parent involvement), family conflict, and poverty. [Pettit, G. (2004). Violent children in developmental perspective: Risk and protective factors and the mechanisms through which they (may) operate. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, (5).] Kids might be influenced by aggressive siblings and friends, living in a violent neighborhood or being a part of an ethnic group that feels oppressed.  Biological and social factors interact with each other; they often occur at the same time and intensify each other.

Protective factors, on the other hand, can buffer the negative effects of risk factors.  These include external resources that provide opportunities for the student to interact with their community in positive ways (like learning how to constructively use time), and encouraging youth towards developing positive internal resources (like a commitment to learning or the ability to practice restraint). In addition to guiding kids away from risk factors, building these protective factors in kids’ lives will steer them toward a positive path. [For more information about different resources that can be strengthened in a child’s life and that provide a positive impact, see the Search Institute website’s 40 Developmental Assets. (For more resources from FYI on asset-based ministry and research, type “assets-based ministry” into the search feature on our web site).]

Key Question 3: Many parents suspect that exposure to violent video games, movies, TV shows, and music lyrics contribute to kids becoming more violent. Does research support this or not?

Most of the research about the influence of media violence on adolescents tends to focus on visual forms of media, such as video games and television/film. So far, the results of these studies suggest that media violence exposure does increase the likelihood that kids will have aggressive thoughts, actions, and feelings in the short-term.

In addition, long-term studies suggest that media violence tends to desensitize kids to violence altogether, decreasing their normal negative response to violence (anger, fear, empathy, or increased physical arousal).  This may lead kids who are already prone to violence to become violent, and even those who are not prone to violence can begin to interpret the world through a lens that suggests “violence is normal.” [For more information, see: Anderson, C. A., Berkowitz, L., Donnerstein, E., Rowell Huesmann, L., Johnson, J. D., Linz, D., Malamuth, N. M., & Wartella, E. (2003). The influence of media violence on youth. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4(3), pp. 81-110. Browne, K. D., & Hamilton-Giachritsis, C. (2005). The influence of violent media on children and adolescents: A public health approach. Lancet, 365, pp. 702-710.]

Key Question 4: For kids already involved in a violent lifestyle, what are some factors or intervention strategies that can help them leave that lifestyle?

Although there are a number of interventions that target youth who are involved in violence and gangs, the kid has to want to leave the gang and the violent lifestyle before any progress can be made. Research has found that youth involved in gangs are “not fundamentally different” than youth who do not belong to a gang. However, the impact of the gang lifestyle on a young person’s life over time is significant. Involvement in gangs leads many to drop out of school and face consequences like involvement with the law and unplanned pregnancies. [Thornberry, T., Huzinga, D., & Loeber, R. (2004). The causes and correlates studies: Findings and policy implications. Juvenile Justice, Journal of the Office of Juvenile and Delinquency Prevention, Volume IX. Number 1, pp. 3-19.] Safety is a huge concern when kids express a desire to leave a gang. Kids who want to leave should refrain from making public announcements or notifying other gang members of this plan; youth workers need to be sensitive to this in order to prevent retaliation. Retaliation may be a real threat in situations when long time members leave hard-core gangs. In this case, relocation (living area, school, etc), if possible, may be the best option.

In addition, the consistent presence of at least one adult who cares about that kid is clearly an asset in their life. However, youth workers need to be aware that those who have been involved in gangs often bring with them multiple factors that put them at risk for developing a violent lifestyle.  Often, they have conflicted relationships with parents and family, they may be using drugs, they may be in trouble with the law, they’ve had difficulties in connecting at their school, and they deal with negative peer influence. Kids who want to leave the gang lifestyle need a number of interventions implemented simultaneously.  Ideally, they should participate in programs that promote healthy family participation (to the extent that this is possible), community reintegration, educational skills, healthy peer networks, healthy lifestyle choices, and pro-social values development. [Coolbaugh, K. and Hansel, C. (2000). The comprehensive strategy: Lessons learned from the pilot sites. Juvenile Justice Bulletin, US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, pp.1-11.]

It’s also important to note that programs such as boot camps or residential facilities have not been found to be effective in deterring young people from relapsing into the same behavior later. [U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (2001). Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, M.D. US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, national Center for Injury Prevention and Control; substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services; and Nation Institutes of Health, National Institutes of Mental Health. .]

Key Question 5: How can we as youth workers respond when we’re concerned that one of our kids is becoming too violent?

First, youth workers should consider whether or not a student has had a history of involvement in high-risk behavior and violence before now. For those who have had a trajectory of violence, we have to set clear behavioral expectations and consequences for how they participate in the group.  Without alienating them from community, these kids require very close supervision and in many cases referral to other relevant community youth violence prevention programs that offer comprehensive approaches and access to other services.  Finding out what resources are available in the community is an important step for youth pastors to make before they have a student with a violence problem.

Sudden changes of behavior among youth who have not had a history of violence usually suggest that something has also changed in their life recently. It might mean they’ve started using substances, they’re having family conflict or family change of some sort, and they might be under pressure to join a gang or get involved in risky behavior. Youth workers should try to find out what’s occurred within the last six months in order to determine the best course of action in ministering to that student.

At the same time, youth workers have to keep careful boundaries.  If the group’s physical integrity is threatened, or the student starts to carry weapons with them, it’s never appropriate to risk the safety of the entire group for the sake of being welcoming for that student. [Note—if you have concerns about a students’ behavior, you can call hotlines such as 1-888-suicide. This is a number for all serious concerns (beyond just suicide) and, in many states, will connect you to a local help-line when possible.]

From the perspective of positive youth development (the view that all kids have resources that can be developed to help them thrive), youth workers can also help identify strengths in students and should encourage their participation in activities that contribute to the community and provide meaning and purpose.

Key Question 6: What are some tips for youth workers who minister to kids or parents who are fearful of violence, especially violence on school campuses?

The first thing that parents and youth need to know is that events such as the shooting at Columbine High School or Virginia Tech are infrequent occurrences. Perhaps the most important thing for parents to do is to keep communication open with their kids so that they have opportunities to express their feelings and their fears. Parents can also become more involved in school to find out about school practices and the rules they have in place in order to prevent violence. 

In order to better understand how to recognize and prevent school violence, the U.S. Department of Education and Secret Service teamed up to study incidents of school violence over the past 25 years.  Their Safe School Initiative study yielded some key findings: 

  • Incidents of targeted violence at school rarely were sudden, impulsive acts.  Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack.  Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack.  However, most attackers did engage in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help.
  • Overall, the research indicates that there is no accurate or useful “profile” of students who engaged in targeted school violence.
  • Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Moreover, many had considered or attempted suicide.  Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted or injured by others prior to the attack.  Further, most had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack.
  • In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity.
  • Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.
  • Almost all of these incidents (only 37 total) were committed by current students, and all of the attackers were male.

Key Question 7: What can youth pastors do to develop an approach to youth violence—not just for their youth ministries, but for their whole communities?

If you ask youth worker Mary Glenn this question, her response is quick and easy: become a law enforcement chaplain.  Mary has been a youth pastor and is now a city development worker in Alhambra, a community in Northeast Los Angeles.  I recently talked with Mary and asked her to share some of her thoughts about why chaplaincy can be a surprisingly important role for youth workers to fill.

“Law enforcement chaplaincy is simply a way to be a partner for law enforcement officers,” Mary says.  When Mary began looking into the police chaplain realm here in Los Angeles, she started to think, “What would it look like if we started to encourage and recruit youth pastors to become law enforcement chaplains, opening a new window of influence in the community?”  Like many communities, the one in which Mary serves has 20,000 students in schools and only two school resource officers.  Being a chaplain can mean helping those resource officers reach students.

There are different levels of chaplaincy—volunteer, part-time, and full-time chaplain roles are all possible, depending on the size of the law enforcement agency you’re working with.  Mary was a youth pastor who asked her church if she could dedicate part of her time to chaplaincy.  “It’s a ministry of presence.  It’s bringing the presence and peace of God wherever you are.  Sometimes it’s sitting in silence with officers, sometimes arranging funerals, or working with runaways.”  Mary began by meeting with the chief of police regularly as a youth pastor and asking him how she could pray for him.  While this was a bit disarming, it turned out to be a great way to build a relationship with the department.  When the next chief came in, she was able to be one of the first to welcome him, and he eventually asked if she could help start a chaplain program in their community.

In terms of building relationships with local schools, Mary has discovered that chaplaincy has opened new doors.  “Now when I want to go on a school campus, I’m not a threat—I’m welcomed by the resource officer and often asked to come along.  I hope we can get youth pastors to see that when God has called us to a city, part of that is being called to all the kids in a school district and a community—perhaps especially those who get involved with criminal activity.”

Case Study: Reversing Violence through an Innovative Youth Ministry

William Portillo knows a lot about youth violence—sixteen years ago he was a gang member sentenced to prison.  After experiencing Christ while in solitary confinement, William felt called to begin a ministry that is now known as Prevencion y Rescate (Prevention and Rescue) in Los Angeles, working with families on both sides of the snares of drugs, violence, and gangs. Through one-on-one counseling with certified drug and alcohol counselors, group therapy, communication skills courses, and training in time and anger management and self-esteem building, Prevencion y Rescate is making an impact in several neighborhoods across L.A.

Working mostly with Spanish-speaking immigrants who have experienced family separation and multiple hardships, the ministry targets kids through street outreach and juvenile hall visits.  Their work is holistic, touching physical, emotional, and spiritual needs for kids and their families.  “What we do to specifically address violence in the lives of kids is first to be the example ourselves.  Most of us were former gang members and drug addicts and we have changed our lives, redirecting them towards God. We also focus on education and on spiritual retreats,” William noted.  Taking kids out of the city and into the mountains for four-day retreats can be disorienting, but can also allow enough space from the issues of home for real breakthroughs to take place.

A big proponent of education, William encourages youth workers to act towards preventing or reducing violence in their communities by educating people on anger management and communication skills.  “Youth and parents both have a lot of incorrect myths about anger and feelings, and most need to learn how to communicate them properly.”

We all wonder about the right way to handle “fights in the youth room.”  These happen sometimes in the ministry programs of Prevencion y Rescate, and William’s team always confronts violence head-on.  “We automatically remind the youth involved that the outside gang mentality is not accepted here at church.  We say, ‘Leave the barrio outside, because this barrio (the church) belongs to Christ.  If you take it further you are disrespecting the Homeboy’ (as we like to call Christ).”

They also emphasize that kids need adults who can be willing to withhold judgment of those involved in gangs and drugs for the ways the media, police and movies tend to portray them.  Instead, they urge youth workers to “get close to them as a homie, talk to them, listen to them in a non-judgmental way, and you will find Christ in them—a Christ who has suffered and has been abandoned and abused in every way you can imagine.”  Seeing beyond the stereotypes in this way, Prevencion y Rescate is also seeing a reversal in the prevalence of violence among the kids they serve.

Marcos is a living testimony of change through William’s ministry.  A former gang member, tagger, and drug user, their team visited his house after his mother asked them to try to reach him.  They shared Christ with Marcos that day, and eventually he attended their Encounter weekend retreat and got involved in their counseling and education classes.  Now off the streets, married, and a father, Marcos has also received a full grant to finish college and is a 4.0 student.  Still following Christ and serving in ministry, Marcos now works with the new English arm of Prevention and Rescue.

Starts and Stops

Most of us know that it’s harder to stop something than it is to get something started.  Whether a ball rolling downhill or a habit that morphs into a lifestyle, we’ve experienced the surprising ways momentum can develop.  When it comes to violence prevention, we must help kids find ways to get started towards positive futures, increasing their chances of avoiding violence and other risky pathways.  In fact, the investments our ministries make by pouring resources into kids might just pay off for everyone in the long run, because we helped them START non-violent lifestyles before anyone had to try to STOP them from making violent choices.

Action Points

  • How do you assess the level of violence in your community?  By what the schools report?  By what the media reports?  By the concerns of kids or parents?  Who in your community (perhaps the police chief or a school administrator) could you talk with about the level of youth violence and the needs of violent youth?
  • Gather a group of kids together to talk about how they experience violence in their schools and neighborhoods.  Is the fear of violence real for them?  How much of the time are they afraid?  What do they do or where do they go to feel safe?  Do they perceive violence as increasing or decreasing, and how do their perceptions impact their own fears and actions?  How and when do they get involved in violence?  What can your ministry do to help kids find other alternatives to violence?
  • Gather a group of parents and other adults in your church to discuss some of the same issues—perhaps email them this article first.  Brainstorm together ways your ministry might become a safe haven for kids and families impacted by violence.  Make a list of other ministries and community groups you could partner with to make a unified impact on preventing and reducing youth violence.  Maybe even become advocates: Go together to a school board or city council meeting and gather support for new initiatives towards positive youth development in the community.
  • Educate and train your ministry volunteers to respond to violence in your ministry.  What is your plan for handling fights that take place on or near church property?  What steps are in place for addressing and diffusing violence?  When do you get the police involved?  How do you communicate to parents after an incident of violence within the group?  How do you strategically create a safe community for ALL students who are part of your ministry, even when there are kids with violent histories among them?