Youth violence touches us all

The following is excerpted from a brief delivered to the U.S. Congress by Graduate School of Education Professor Raymond P. Lorion. Lorion is chair of the Psychology in Education Division.

In defining “violence”, I include among its victims individuals physically hurt by an act of violence; witnesses of such acts; family members, friends and other associates of the above two groups; and occupants of settings who are aware of and anxious about such acts.

This expanded definition of violence is supported by a growing body of scientific evidence linking exposure to pervasive community violence (PCV) with traumatic symptoms including feelings of vulnerability, anxiety, anger and generalized distress.

Evidence is now emerging that PCV exposure interferes with sleep, digestion and physiological rest and arousal. Disruptions of these physiological functions in turn have been linked to deficits in attention, concentration, memory, motor control, impulse control and overall academic functioning.

A widespread toll

Elsewhere, I have likened PCV to an environmental contaminant that has corrosive effects on family life, school life, and the overall psychosocial quality of communities. Evidence is emerging which documents PCV’s destructive effects on the comfort with which we live in our homes and neighborhoods. PCV taints how we raise our children, teach our students, interact with our neighbors, respond to strangers and, generally, relate to each other.

PCV corrodes social exchange, civility and isolates families from neighbors and neighborhoods from communities.

Throughout the life span, however, it seems clear that exposure to violence as victim or witness increases the likelihood that one will see violent tendencies in others and react accordingly. Violence begets violence!

What to do

The challenge confronting communities seeking to prevent violence is to match strategies with needs. This cannot be achieved by selecting an intervention and applying it recipe-like to youth. Rather, we need to conduct research which enables communities and organizations to understand and apply the basic elements of a public health approach. As explained by the CDC, the public health approach is a systematic process for:

a) Defining and measuring a problem;

b) Determining local causes and their readiness for modification;

c) Developing and testing interventions which match local needs and resources; and

d) Implementing and evaluating an intervention.

What makes an intervention effective is the extent to which members of the community become involved in the processes associated with each of those four steps. Participation in such processes is, in my opinion, at least as important as the intervention procedures. Members of the community must become organized and work through the challenges associated with defining, measuring and acknowledging the nature and extent of the youth violence to be addressed; targeting the intervention to specific perpetrators and victims; selecting intervention procedures and the roles of everyone involved in its delivery; and agreeing on the criteria for determining its success. Doing so informs all of how violence is expressed in their community or setting, identifies its targets and clarifies its impacts on its victims, its witnesses and its perpetrators.

The prevention of youth violence is a laudable goal achievable only if translated into a series of measurable reductions over a specific period of time. The community must plan for the intervention’s end and consider how it will sustain success and avoid recurrence of the problem in other forms with other targets.

To reduce youth violence, home, school, neighborhood and community must admit its existence, measure its impacts and invest jointly and continuously in its prevention.

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Originally published on May 17, 2001