Impulsive Behavior At The Root Of Youth Gun Violence

Impulsive Behavior At The Root Of Youth Gun Violence
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By: Robyn Gee

Chicago just hit its 400th murder of 2012, according to the New York Times. The University of Chicago Crime Lab reports that more black males between 15-24 in the United States die of homicide, than the next nine causes of death put together.

Are we in some kind of crisis?

Roseanna Ander, Executive Director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, said that Chicago is not short on ideas on how to solve the youth gun violence problem. There are many organizations and people throughout the city working hard to fix the problem on a daily basis. What's missing, she said, is hard evidence that these programs work.

Ander and her lab released a report in 2009 called “Gun Violence in School-Age Youth In Chicago,” that synthesized existing data and looked at the narratives surrounding incidents of gun violence and homicide. She mentioned some interesting findings.

The first is that while Chicago does have a serious gang problem, the majority of youth gun violence is the result of impulsive behavior. “It wasn’t so much fights over gang turf or drug turf... but what came up over and over again was how incredibly impulsive the violence was. It’s not just about gangs, but it’s about kids who are growing up in very hostile, very challenging environments, who not surprisingly, have a short trigger, or a short fuse,” said Ander.

Building off the data they collected, the Crime Lab invited community organizations to submit for consideration their existing projects related to gun violence intervention. One was chosen to be a guinea pig for the city of Chicago. This program had to concede to be implemented on a large scale and intensely evaluated by the Crime Lab.

The Lab selected a program called “Becoming a Man - Sports Edition,” that had originated in just one school. With the Crime Lab’s help and fundraising, the program had served over 1800 adolescent boys, and produced a 44 percent decrease in violent crime arrests and a significant increase in school engagement.

The Crime Lab explains how the program works:

BAM-Sports Edition is designed to address the difficult everyday circumstances facing many low-income, minority male youth in Chicago. The intervention focuses on developing skills related to emotional regulation, control of stress response, improved social-information processing, interpersonal problem solving, goal setting and attainment, and personal integrity. Another goal of this intervention is to impart a realistic, socially responsible view of adult masculinity to youth whose social environments often promote competing, more aggressive norms.

The results of the BAM experiment show that interventions that focus on social behaviors can be successful. Ander said that the ideal time to intervene is around age 10, before a student enters high school. “When they’re starting to skip school, miss school, even drop out from school, when are they starting to accumulate arrests. Not waiting until they’re 17 or 18 and deeply entrenched in the criminal justice system,” she said.

Cities like Oakland are also targeting young males, with an emphasis on African Americans. According to San Francisco Gate, almost 20 percent of Oakland’s African American males were suspended at least once last year, which is six times the rate of white boys in Oakland. In 2008-2009, 40.2% of African American students dropped out of school, according to the California Department of Education.

Schools like Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland are introducing “Manhood Development” classes designed to create a culture of success and foster positive leadership qualities. These classes are run by Oakland’s Office of African American Male Achievement and they’re part of a plan on behalf of the school district to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions of African American and Latino students.

Cities all over the country are making a connection between education and crime. Ander said, “The evidence is very strong that there’s a causal link between keeping a kid in high school, helping them graduate, and reducing the likelihood that they become a victim or perpetrator of violence... One of the most effective social policy levers we have is school and school engagement, and when you have a city like Chicago with over half the boys not graduating from high school, there clearly is a huge margin for improvement.”

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