See our Photo of the Week (and archive of more)

Opinion Advertize Permission
To be notified of new articles Survey Store About Us
Reducing and Preventing
Youth Violence:

An Analysis of Causes and
an Assessment of Successful Programs

by Pedro Noguera
Berkeley, California


As the number of violent crimes committed by young people under the age of 18 has increased in recent years, the problem of youth violence has been elevated to an issue of national concern. Since 1980, the number of violent crimes committed by juveniles has climbed steadily; between 1984 and 1993, the number of juveniles arrested for violent offenses increased by nearly 68%. *1 (This figure is particularly alarming given that many incidents of violence are not reported to the police.) *2 The extent of the problem is further indicated by the fact that since 1989, the homicide rate for juveniles has exceeded the adult rate, and since 1980, the juvenile arrest rate for all types of violent crimes has surpassed the rate recorded for adults. *3

Young people are not only increasingly more likely to be perpetrators of violence, but are also much more likely to be the victims of violent crime. *4 For every category of violent crime, young people between the ages of 12 and 18 are more likely to be victims than any other age group. *5 The rate of victimization is highest among minority youth-- African-American youth are six times more likely to be victims of homicide than their white counterparts *6 -- but for all young people, homicide is surpassed only by suicide as the leading cause of death. *7

As incidents of violence involving youth have increased, public demands for effective measures aimed at curtailing youth violence have grown commensurately. At the state and national levels, the response from policymakers to the surge in youth violence has primarily come in the form of "get tough" measures, including substantial increases in funding for law enforcement and corrections, and increased penalties for juveniles convicted of offenses involving the use of violence. Curfews targeted at teenagers and a variety of measures intended to improve school safety have also been adopted in cities throughout the country. *8 As a result of these initiatives, there has been a steady increase in the arrest rate for juveniles convicted of committing violent crimes. Since 1984, the juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes in California has increased 53%, *9 and conservative estimates project a continued increase, of as much as 29%, over the next ten years. *10 Despite this increase, public perceptions and concerns about youth violence have not been quelled, and the sense of urgency to find solutions remains high.

This paper attempts to contribute to the search for solutions to the problem of youth violence. After beginning with a critical examination of some of the more popular strategies for reducing and preventing youth violence, I will explain why these measures have generally not succeeded and analyze the solutions that have emerged in criminology, psychology, and public health. I will then examine the means by which violence has been normalized and how it is perceived in youth culture, particularly in economically depressed minority communities. Finally, I will present a case-study analysis of three programs that have been successful in reducing youth violence, focusing on those characteristics that are most essential to the development of effective local responses to youth violence.

Responding to Youth Violence: Why Getting Tough Hasn't Worked

Although several states are experimenting with alternatives to the traditional approaches used to deal with violent juvenile offenders, old methods of social control still tend to dominate most state and federal policies. Generally, this approach is characterized by (1) the deployment of special units within local police departments targeted at youth gangs, schools and areas where young people congregate and socialize; (2) the enactment of stiffer penalties for convicted juvenile felons and more rigid sentencing guidelines for judges; and (3) reliance on large correctional facilities for detention and punishment.

During the 1960s and 1970s, several attempts were made to shift the focus of juvenile justice away from its emphasis on punitive remedies. *11 In Massachusetts, for example, all of the large juvenile correctional facilities were shut down during the 1970s and replaced by smaller, community-based programs. *12 Although less ambitious, similar efforts have been undertaken in Utah, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Florida. *13 Despite evidence that these reforms were both more cost-efficient and effective, many of these initiatives were abandoned as the rate of violent juvenile crime began to soar in the 1980s. In response to charges by legislators and segments of the public that violent and delinquent youth were being coddled, most states -- and California in particular-- have returned to earlier practices in juvenile corrections, placing a renewed emphasis on punishment.

As a result of this change in policy, the number of incarcerated youth has increased dramatically. In California, the number of juveniles incarcerated by the state increased from 5,700 in June 1985 to 9,400 in 1994. *14 Sentences for juveniles convicted of violent crimes have also been lengthened. *15 Increases in the juvenile inmate population have been reported in other states as well, though none have matched the pace of California, where the increase in incarceration has outpaced the ability of the state to finance and construct new facilities. Consequently, many youth correction centers are overcrowded, poorly maintained, and generally regarded as unsafe.*16 California and other states have responded by planning for the construction of more facilities and by modernizing some of the older ones. Despite the cost of this strategy, and the disastrous effect that diverting financial resources toward prison construction and maintenance has had on other state-sponsored programs, there is no sign that policymakers are seriously considering alternatives to incarceration at this time. *17

Enough time has passed since the mid-1980s to evaluate the results of this shift toward a more stringent approach in the treatment of violent juvenile offenders, and already several reasons for reconsideration of the direction of current policy have emerged. First, there is no evidence that the significant increase in the number of youth arrested and incarcerated for violent crimes has had any effect on the regularity with which acts of violence are committed. Though some argue that without this increase, even more violent crimes would have been committed, *18 the fact that incidents of youth violence, including the most serious forms (i.e. homicide, rape, armed robbery and kidnapping), have not decreased, and that most projections indicate that further increases are likely in the future, *19 suggests that the current approach may not be working. Most experts agree that the number of hard-core violent youth is relatively small, approximately 6% according to most estimates, *20 however, identifying these individuals before they commit crimes is nearly impossible. And incarcerating violent juveniles for longer periods or treating them as adults does little to deter violence since there is no evidence that perpetrators logically think through the consequences of their actions prior to carrying them out. Furthermore, the sheer cost of implementing this strategy weakens and limits the ability of the state to pursue other options, that might be more effective in preventing youth violence.

The effectiveness of incarceration as a strategy for reducing violent crime is limited in other ways as well. There is evidence that for many youth, the experience of serving time in a large detention center may actually increase the likelihood that they will commit violent crimes again in the future. *21 Little emphasis is placed on rehabilitation while youth are in custody, or on re-entry programs when they return to their communities. According to the California Youth Authority's (CYA) conservative measures, 55 - 60% of juvenile convicts return to prison within two years after their release. *22 Moreover, even though the juvenile-corrections systems in California remains officially committed to the goal of rehabilitation, producing a change in the behavior of a significant number of inmates is unlikely because most of the detention centers are tough, violent places. Since 1981, the number of cases of battery without a weapon committed against incarcerated youth in facilities managed by the CYA has increased steadily. *23 Juvenile convicts, the vast majority of whom are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, *24 are compelled to contend with this pervasive violence much of which is due to widespread gang activity. The fact that prison officials are unable to control violence within these facilities is a further indictment of this strategy.

Finally, despite the substantial public investment required to finance the current strategy, there is no evidence that public fears about violent juvenile crime have subsided. Opinion polls suggest that the public continues to be very concerned about the problem of violent juvenile crime. For example, a national poll commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers to ascertain the public's expectations regarding public schools found that fears about violence and the lack of safety surpassed concerns about educational issues. *25 These trends are mirrored in California, where fears of violent crime remains high despite unprecedented levels of spending on law enforcement, the enactment of the so-called three-strikes initiative, and plans to construct a number of new prisons.

Although it might be argued that fear of crime may be greater than the problem itself, an exaggerated perception of the problem is likely to result in even more support for punitive measures for dealing with violent crime. Thus far, few politicians have been willing to challenge this perception with accurate information, even though the reality is that young people in general, and minority youth in particular, are at greatest risk of becoming the victims of youth violence. *26 In addition, although incidents of violent juvenile crime tend to occur most often in low-income urban areas, in many ways the initiatives undertaken to deter violent crime and ensure public safety have catered to the needs and fears of middle-class voters who reside in communities that are relatively safe, while the needs of the most vulnerable populations have received less attention. *27

Searching for the Cause(s) of Youth Violence

Among academicians and researchers, the study of youth violence has been dominated by criminologists who have focused their efforts on trying to explain the causes of violent juvenile crime and devise strategies for reducing its occurrence. Psychologists and more recently, epidemiologists and other researchers in public health, have also taken on the study of youth violence. All three disciplinary approaches have yielded important insights on aspects of youth violence, but none has found what can definitively be regarded as the cause(s) of this phenomenon; nor have they provided an adequate explanation for its seemingly random nature. As is true for most problem-oriented research in the behavioral sciences, the search for cause has generally been viewed as critical to the development of solutions and remedies. Past experience has shown that failure to accurately locate the cause of a social problem often leads to treatment of its symptoms and, consequently, an inability to find lasting solutions.

Among criminologists, research on youth violence has been dominated by ongoing debates over the effectiveness of strategies employed by the justice system to respond to the problem. As might be expected, there is continued controversy over whether increasing the rate of incarceration actually lowers the rate of violent juvenile crime. *28 The role and effectiveness of prisons as deterrents to violent crime, and their potential for serving as sites of rehabilitation and retraining, also features prominently in the research.*29 Much of this work has generated important information relevant to the study of youth violence; however, little of this research has actually contributed to the development of long-term solutions to the problem.

In recent years, research related to the development of interventions and possible solutions has come from psychology and social welfare. In these fields, the effort to identify the cause of youth violence has focused on a set of variables conceived of as "risk factors" that are associated with violent behavior. These factors include the influence of social and cultural forces emanating from the neighborhood/community, school, peers, and family, as well as characteristics that are particular to the individual-- namely, intelligence, personality traits, and physical and mental health.*30 This line of inquiry has also focused attention on correlations between violent behavior and biological factors, such as hormonal imbalances, head injuries and possible genetic linkages to aggression. *31 In addition to the risk factors, protective factors have also been identified to try to explain why two individuals who are similar in most ways might exhibit different behavior. In short, the approach taken in psychology is to attempt to explain violent behavior through an understanding of the way in which it is produced through the interaction of individuals and the social environment. *32

Following a strategy that has proven effective with the study of communicable diseases, public health researchers-- in particular epidemiologists-- have also taken on the search for the cause(s) of youth violence. Resources have been directed at studying patterns of violence and victimization among populations exhibiting the greatest risk of vulnerability. *33 Drawing on a conceptual framework that has been used by public health researchers in the study of disease, these scholars have attempted to identify and analyze the interaction between host, agent, and environment in the study of youth violence. Through review and analysis of demographic data, epidemiologists have been able to identify not only what types of people are most at risk, but also the locations and even the time at which violence is most likely to occur.*34 Such an analysis has proven to be extremely helpful for targeting interventions at specific populations and groups. Moreover, by treating youth violence as a public health issue, these researchers are helping to broaden the search for solutions away from an exclusive focus on law enforcement, towards the identification of alternative strategies.

As a result of these research efforts, we now know much more about juvenile violence. We know what kinds of individuals and groups are most likely to be victims and perpetrators; we know that familial dysfunction, child abuse, community disorder, racial discrimination, poverty, and the availability of guns greatly contribute to the persistence of this problem; and we know that increasing the incarceration rate for violent juvenile offenders has not yet reduced the incidence of youth violence. Nevertheless, although numerous studies have been commissioned in the public and private sectors, and several scholarly associations have directed research and resources at efforts to promote violence prevention, these endeavors have not yet yielded effective solutions. For all we know about the nature of youth violence, we still understand very little about its causes. Consequently, while policymakers continue with their efforts to build more prisons and incarcerate more young people, researchers continue searching for answers, unable to reach consensus on a strategy for effective prevention of the problem.

Youth Violence as a Cultural Phenomenon

How do we explain the inability of researchers in the social sciences and medicine to find solutions to the problem of youth violence? Undoubtedly, much of the frustration is due to a misunderstanding of the problem itself. The assumption underlying much of the research on youth violence is that a singular cause or set of discrete causal variables can be identified, isolated, and acted upon. Though such a model has been applied successfully in other research endeavors, it may be that certain aspects of the human condition cannot be explained through traditional forms of scientific inquiry, and youth violence may be such a phenomenon

Violence among young people must be understood as more than just an expression of aggressive individual behavior. It must be seen as part of a larger cultural phenomenon, one that is inextricably woven into the history and social fabric of our society. Though we may be repulsed by certain forms of violence, we must acknowledge that our society glorifies and is entertained by violence.

We may react strongly to child abuse or crimes against the elderly, but in our culture we honor and heap admiration upon individuals in sports or the military whose capacity for violence enables them to overcome their opponents or trounce their enemies. Violence and violent images are pervasive, infiltrating our language through metaphors and helping to define our collective sense of who we are as a people and as citizens of the most powerful nation on earth.

Violence is also a learned behavior. It may be consciously and unconsciously reinforced by families through child-rearing practices or promoted by the media and other expressions of popular culture through subtle and blatant images. Even our collective response to the threat of violence often manifests itself through some other form of violence: we sanction the killing of killers, and accept the notion that personal safety can be achieved by allowing citizens to be armed. At a visceral level, many of us seek justice for violence through some other form of violence.

Certain forms of violence (i.e. drive-by shootings) are more likely to be exhibited in specific contexts or by certain groups of people. However, even in our highly stratified and segregated communities, increasingly violence knows no limits or bounds. There is substantial evidence that violence is pervasive and not constrained by race, class, gender, or geographic location. To be sure, ours is not the only society that experiences high levels of violence, but what is uniquely American is the high rate of interpersonal violence, particularly involving young people. *35

If we accept the view of violence as a cultural phenomenon, one that is embedded in our collective history, reinforced by the media, and practiced or glorified in almost every sector of our society, then we must accept the reality that we cannot respond to it by isolating or incapacitating some number of violent individuals or targeting particular groups. Yet most of the focus of policymakers, the criminal justice system, and current research has concentrated on the violent behavior of a particular group -- young Black and Latino males -- and on manifestations of violence in low-income urban areas.*36 Popular images of violence in our society have become intimately associated with young, urban, Black and Latino males. This is due both to the rate at which incidents of violence occur in these areas and among this segment of the population, and also because of perceptions and stereotypes that are rooted in our history of racism and discrimination. It is sensible to concentrate research on, and develop interventions for, those segments of the population that have been most likely to exhibit or become victims of violence; however, by overlooking the broader cultural manifestations of violence, we not only add to the marginalization and stigmatization of the targeted group, but also ignore the host of factors that contribute to the persistence of this problem throughout our society.

Responding to violence as a cultural phenomenon has important implications for the interventions and long-term solutions that are devised to address its expression among youth. This focus compels us to examine the ways in which violence is promoted in our society and how it may be normalized as a part of social interaction among certain subcultures.*37 It also helps us to analyze how violent behavior may be produced in particular contexts through the interaction of individuals and groups and the social environment.

Youth Perceptions of Violence

As an example of the way this approach could be applied in research, I will describe a project that I developed at four local middle schools in the San Francisco Bay Area for studying youth attitudes toward violence. I undertook this project because despite my own experience of growing up in Brooklyn, New York where I was exposed to a considerable amount of violence, I felt that I did not know enough about how young people today perceive and interpret the meaning of violence in their environment.

To gain a better understanding, I conducted research with young people at four middle schools, two of which primarily served middle-class suburban students and two of which served low-income urban students. All of the schools were racially integrated, though there were no white students present in the classes at the urban schools where the research was conducted. Part of the research involved the development of an anonymous questionnaire, which I administered to students and then followed with group discussions. The questions focused on how students experience violence in their everyday lives and how they might respond when presented with situations that involved violence.

In my analysis of students' responses to the questions, one important finding stood out: for nearly all of the students in the low-income urban school, even those who had never been in a fight before, violence was seen as an unavoidable part of their social reality. That is, when confronted with situations in which violence was a strong possibility, these students were less likely to consider calling upon an adult for protection or help in resolving the dispute. Instead, they were more likely to consider calling on friends or family for backup, with some indicating that they would even consider arming themselves for protection. When I asked these students why they felt fighting was unavoidable, I was told repeatedly that an adult can provide only temporary protection. These students felt that, eventually, they must confront a challenger and that reporting the individual to school authorities might only worsen the consequences.

In contrast, nearly all of the middle-class students at both suburban schools felt that they could rely upon an adult to intervene and prevent a violent confrontation. They expressed concern about bullies and gangs who at times preyed upon other students, but most felt that violence was avoidable, and like the kids at the urban schools, these students described being entertained by fights among their peers. In sum, the vast majority of these students lived in an environment where personal security and safety were to a large extent assured, while the urban students felt vulnerable and endangered, and viewed the threat of violence as an unavoidable feature of their social environment with which they had to contend.

What these students' experiences with violence tell us is that at least part of the effort to reduce the incidence of youth violence must include an attempt to challenge and counter the ways in which violence is normalized and becomes seen as a legitimate, and even appropriate, way to respond to certain situations. Such a challenge must address violent behavior in context; conflict resolution and anger-control techniques are generally not effective in situations where others are operating by a different set of rules and expectations. Just as rates of violence vary across populations and communities, the norms and values that frame its occurrence vary as well. Hence, the approaches devised to address this problem must:

1) be open to innovation and creative application
2) be tailored to the particular needs of communities and schools
3) involve the participation of the target populations in planning and implementation.

Case-Study Analysis

In the final pages, I will present an analysis of three case studies that demonstrate how strategies, that take culture into account have been successfully applied. Each case presents a concrete example of how a normative frame of reference that supported violent behavior was challenged. The strategies described grew out of trial and error and emerged in response to particular problems and conditions.

Case Study I:

Promoting Safety by Reducing the Gap Between School and Community

During the 1992-93 academic year, Lowell Middle School was distinguished from other middle schools in Oakland because it was the only school at which no weapons had been confiscated from students. *38 Particularly noteworthy was the fact that Lowell is located in West Oakland, an economically blighted community with a reputation for drug dealing, poverty, and high rates of crime and violence.

This reputation requires even further clarification in order to truly understand what has been accomplished at Lowell. There is no viable local economy for the residents of West Oakland as there are no banks, hardware stores or pharmacies. There is one relatively large grocery store, but according to published reports, it charges 22% more on average for common household goods than other supermarkets in Oakland.*39 Liquor stores, in contrast, are plentiful, and the landscape is filled with culturally oriented billboards, most of which advertise liquor and cigarettes. This community has been a magnet for TOADS (Temporarily Obsolete or Abandoned Derelict Sites) and LULUs (Locally Unwanted Land Uses). According to recent environmental impact reports, there are 630 sites of potential soil contamination due to leaking tanks or mismanaged toxic materials. The area is also characterized by illegal dumping, which occurs not only on vacant lots but on street corners and school grounds as well. *40 The combination of traffic emissions from the surrounding freeways and air pollution from local industry -- such as the sewage treatment plant managed by the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD)-- has created poor air quality which many residents believe to be responsible for the higher-than-average asthma rates and respiratory problems among children.*41 In between residential areas, and on some streets right next door to family homes, there is a smattering of heavy industry and warehouses (the kinds of businesses that once provided union jobs at decent wages), but for the most part, West Oakland residents are not employed at these companies. *42

As might be expected, this is a community in which the rate of youth violence is very high. West Oakland youth account for a disproportionate share of the homicides, rapes, and aggravated assaults committed by youth in Oakland each year. *43 At Lowell, 69% of the students are from families whose income makes them eligible for federally subsidized free breakfast and lunch programs: school district records indicate that 64% of the children are from families that receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).*44 In the 1992 academic year, approximately two-thirds of all Lowell students lived with someone other than their biological parents,*45 which for most students meant living with another family member-- usually a grandmother-- or in a foster home.

As is true in many urban schools, most Lowell teachers commute to work and are not familiar with West Oakland. In fact, for many, the surrounding neighborhood embodies all of the negative images associated with inner-city life. The perceived threat of crime and violence emanating from the community invariably influences the way that many teachers see the children. Fear and suspicion have thus added to the difficulties created by differences in race, class, and age to reinforce profound psychological barriers to cooperation and constructive communication between teachers and parents, school and community.

Not surprisingly, past efforts to promote safety at Lowell relied on the traditional kinds of responses to discipline problems and the threat of violence in the schools that have been popular elsewhere.*46 For example, in response to complaints over the lack of safety at the school filed by four teachers in 1992, the school adopted an experimental approach to the problem of disruptive students, which in the eyes of many teachers was intimately related to the problem of school violence. Teachers compiled a list of the most difficult students at the school and with district funds, assigned a new teacher the task of working with 18 of the most incorrigible of them in an isolated classroom. The plan was characterized as being in the best interests of the targeted students, in that it was intended to "provide a culturally relevant curriculum and enhanced academic and social support to at-risk students." *47

Before long it became clear that for the teacher and the 18 students, the class was not working. Students complained bitterly about being isolated and deprived of participating in school activities. Even the young teacher, who had previously seemed optimistic, threatened to quit because the class proved impossible to manage. Interestingly, when other teachers were interviewed about how their classes were going without the more troublesome students, several told me that students, who had previously not been regarded as problems, had emerged to fill the role of class troublemaker. One teacher even suggested that another classroom for disruptive students should be created.

Eventually, this experiment was abandoned and in its place concrete steps were taken by the staff to create a school environment that provides students with a sense of security and stability. Recognizing that many students come to school hungry, the school offered children in need three free meals a day. Coats and shoes were also made available to children through donations collected by the school staff. For the past two years school hours have been extended for tutoring, photography, and recreational activities. In the evenings and on weekends, the site is used by community organizations that provide services to children and the community, such as the Omega Boys Club, West Oakland Mental Health, and the Parks and Recreation Department of the City of Oakland.

The gap between the school and community has also been bridged by Betty Maze, the school's campus monitor, who is a grandmother living in the community. Unlike the physically intimidating men who are hired to patrol most urban school grounds, Ms. Maze provides discipline through compassion rather than coercion and is able to promote school safety because she is familiar with the life experience of the students. Without using force, Ms. Maze is able to break up fights, handle students who are too difficult and disruptive for most teachers, and keep strangers off the campus. Because the students respect her-- and not because they are physically intimidated by her-- they listen to and comply with her instructions.

Frustrated by the failure of traditional methods, Lowell teachers began thinking more creatively about ways to respond to discipline problems. They recognized the futility of relying on suspension from school to punish students who don't attend school regularly anyway, and devised alternative forms of discipline which occur at the school. Through group discussion teachers have challenged practices such as the use of public humiliation as a form of discipline. To encourage students to reflect upon their actions and take responsibility for their behavior, they have explored ways of teaching ethical and moral issues within their classroom. And as individuals, the teachers have been critically examining their own behavior in an effort to become more aware of the ways in which their style of teaching and disciplining students might be changed to enable them to better meet students' needs.

Gradually, these initiatives have helped to transform the school culture at Lowell and have helped to make the school a source of stability and security for the children. Although it is difficult to quantify the effects these changes have had on the school site, for students and teachers, the difference is real and appreciable. For the students in particular, even those who behave differently on the streets, Lowell has become a place that is no longer seen as appropriate for or conducive to violent behavior.

Case Study II:

Reducing Youth Crime Through R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Beginning in the summer of 1989 and continuing through the winter of 1991, several violent disturbances and incidents involving teenagers occurred on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. *48 Given the area's history as a focal point for numerous protests and violent conflicts, news of rioting on Telegraph did not initially seem out of the ordinary to most observers. However, what made these disturbances unique was that they involved large numbers of Black teenagers from communities across the Bay Area who congregated on the avenue on weekend nights. Though the vast majority were there for nothing more than a slice of pizza and harmless fun, there were also groups and individuals who descended upon Telegraph Avenue with the intention of committing crimes and victimizing college students.

After several weekends of violence, which included a substantial rise in robberies, aggravated assaults, rapes, and looting,*49 the city of Berkeley began deploying large numbers of police officers to the area on Friday and Saturday evenings, with the hope that such a presence would frighten away criminal elements. With 50 to 60 officers present in the five-block area, the number of violent incidents declined substantially within a relatively short period of time. However, the massive police presence also had the effect of scaring away many of the tourists and customers who frequented restaurants and stores in the area. Business owners complained that while they wanted relief from the crowds of teenagers, the city's strategy had hurt their revenues. City officials themselves began to question their strategy for addressing the problem. Though dispatching large numbers of police officers to the area had reduced the number of violent incidents involving young people, the cost of sustaining this operation was beyond what the city could afford.

Increasingly, pressure mounted for a more limited operation aimed specifically at driving crowds of Black youth from the area. Several business owners called for the creation of a curfew, and some advocated the enlistment of the FBI to respond to what they claimed was a growing number of racially motivated violent crimes. Students and University officials also expressed concern about the lack of safety in the area, but were generally less willing to endorse measures that might appear to undermine civil liberties. In keeping with Berkeley's radical image, still another segment of the community decried the police action as fascistic and vowed to oppose any strategy in which law enforcement targeted kids.

Faced with few viable options for resolving the problem and a deeply divided community, city officials returned to a strategy that had proven effective in the past: they created a large community task force to develop recommendations for solving the problem. The task force was composed of representatives from each of the relevant constituencies in the community including youth from Berkeley. For three months, the task force and various subcommittees met in an effort to build consensus on a set of recommendations. As could have been expected, differences emerged, discussions often deteriorated into arguments, and the group process gradually proved too exhausting for some. Eventually, a breakthrough did occur. As a result of conversations with young people held by a subcommittee, a recommendation emerged, calling for the creation of a youth group that would serve as an escort service and monitoring patrol on the Avenue. Unlike other proposals that had been debated, this one found broad agreement: the idea that young people could play a role in mediating conflicts and promoting safety through their presence in the area on weekend nights appealed to most of the members and won the group's endorsement.

As a result, R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (Racial and Ethnic Sharing Providing Empowerment to our Community Today) was created in the summer of 1993 through funding from the Berkeley City Council. *50 Composed of young people from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, the organization was charged with helping to provide security on Telegraph Avenue in a non-threatening, non-confrontational manner. Explicit in the charge was the admonition that R.E.S.P.E.C.T guides were not to engage in any form of police work. Wearing dark jackets and hats and armed with radios, the guides were to report all suspicious activities to the police, provide escort service to individuals desiring company when walking home at night, and attempt to mediate conflicts involving young people on Telegraph Avenue.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T was one part of a package of new measures adopted to address problems of youth violence on Telegraph Avenue. This package also included midnight basketball, a mentorship/apprenticeship program, and the city's sponsorship of regular weekend parties held at venues throughout the community, with security and supervision provided. It also included preventive measures such as strict parking enforcement in the Telegraph area to reduce cruising and a visible, though less extensive, police presence.

The combination worked. In the two years since R.E.S.P.E.C.T. and the other measures were put in place, crimes by young people in the area have diminished substantially. In fact, city officials have been so pleased by the impact of R.E.S.P.E.C.T. on Telegraph Avenue that they have expanded the program to other areas of the city, and have pledged to continue funding for the project for the next five years. *51 The Berkeley Police Department has been one of the strongest supporters for the program. Whereas the allocation of one police officer to the area cost the city approximately $100,000.00 annually in salaries and benefits, the entire R.E.S.P.E.C.T. program costs $110,000.00 annually. (In 1992 this included salaries for two coordinators and seven guides.) Police support for the program is based on the fact that R.E.S.P.E.C.T. guides allow the police to avoid unnecessary confrontations with young people and panhandlers. According to Berkeley Police Captain Roy Misner:

Feedback from officers regarding the R.E.S.P.E.C.T. program has been very positive. All of the ones observed have been polite, courteous and appear dedicated to their mission. During the week of October 17th, there was tension between Berkeley High students and the merchants on Shattuck Avenue. The department's response to the situation was to saturate the area with officers during the high school lunch break. The more sensitive approach to this problem occurred when three sincere and personable R.E.S.P.E.C.T. members appeared on the scene. Their personalities and knowledge of the students prevented anticipated concerns and maintained calm within the Shattuck business district. *52

As a strategy for violence prevention the R.E.S.P.E.C.T. program was successful because it did not rely upon intimidation and coercion. Involving young people in a solution -- the development of the security program -- changed the mood on the Avenue and greatly reduced the tensions that had been growing between young people and adults in the area. The presence of the young R.E.S.P.E.C.T. guides in their jackets and hats communicated to other young people that they were not being targeted for harassment because they were young and Black. R.E.S.P.E.C.T. allowed young people to take responsibility for creating a safer environment on the Avenue, a goal that most youth could understand and accept.

Case Study III:

Creating a Real Alternative for Troubled Youth

Prepackaged freebase or crack cocaine, known as "rock" on the West Coast, began to appear on the streets of Berkeley in the early 1980s.*53 Concentrated in the predominantly Black neighborhoods of South and West Berkeley, the advent of crack cocaine brought with it a substantial increase in violent crime and social upheaval. Young people featured prominently in drug trafficking activities, serving both as street-level dealers and security for the protection of turf. Minors were particularly well suited for this trade because if apprehended by the police, they could avoid the stiffer penalties reserved for adults. The absence of more established gangs in Berkeley also created conditions that were favorable to aspiring young drug dealers. With considerable profits available for those willing to take the risk, many young people in Berkeley became involved with the drug trade, and consequently there was soon a significant increase in the number of youth arrested for drug related and violent crimes during the period from 1984 to 1988.

The city's ability to respond to this situation was complicated by a split between city residents regarding perceptions of the drug problem, dividing them along socioeconomic and racial lines. While most residents in Berkeley's African-American community demanded tough action on the part of the city, many progressive, white residents residing in safer middle class neighborhoods expressed more concern about the protection of civil liberties. The latter opposed any policy that seemed to emphasize law enforcement and questioned the efficacy of a strategy focused primarily on arresting street-level dealers, who comprised only the lower echelons of the illicit drug trade. Both sides were vocal and active, and both groups asserted considerable political pressure on city government.

Initially, the City's attempts to counter drug trafficking relied on intensifying law enforcement efforts in the affected neighborhoods. However, though the number of drug-related arrests soared as a result of increased police pressure, the problem persisted. Each time a crack house was shut down or a dealer was arrested, another venue and dealer emerged to fill the market niche. Pressure from South and West Berkeley who were residents feeling besieged by the rising crime rate, continued to grow, eventually prompting the city to develop and implement a new drug policy that included short -- and long-term strategies for addressing drug-related problems.*54 Intended to be comprehensive in nature, the new strategy combined neighborhood-based policing with new opportunities for treatment for drug users and their families and the creation of various opportunity programs for youth. The Real Alternatives Project (RAP) was created in 1988 and intended to serve as the model opportunity program for troubled youth.

Created by a coalition of community-based agencies providing different types of youth services in Berkeley, RAP was designed to provide individualized and integrated prevention and intervention services to disadvantaged, at-risk youth, the kind of youngsters who were being lured into the drug trade. The 38 young people selected for the program were between the ages of 14 and 16 and had previously been identified as "at-risk" by school counselors and/or the police department. The basis for this selection included prior contact with the police for a criminal offense, poor school performance, low income, and a family history of criminal or delinquent behavior. The program goal was to provide these teenagers with a comprehensive array of services so that negative behavioral outcomes could be prevented and reduced. Additionally, the designers of RAP believed that if these "at-risk" youth could be integrated into a peer group that modeled positive behaviors and norms, they would be more likely to distance themselves from the environmental and peer influences that had contributed to their past troubles. *55

A central feature of RAP involved the provision of culturally relevant services, including tutoring, part-time and summer employment, counseling, recreational activities, mentoring, and family workshops. In addition, youth in RAP were each assigned a case counselor who served as their confidant, broker, and advocate, and who closely monitored their behavior at home, school, and in the neighborhood. The operating assumption of the program was that case counselors who shared the cultural background of the youth, and who were not too much older, could most effectively assist them in avoiding trouble and improving their behavior.

After seven years of operation, there is clear evidence that RAP has been successful as a deterrent to violence and criminal behavior. For the young people enrolled, the number of contacts with police for criminal or violent behavior has been greatly reduced. Graduation and school-retention rates increased dramatically, and suspension and expulsion rates declined substantially. The cost of the program (approximately $3,500.00 per student), its comprehensive character, and its proven effectiveness, have enabled it to grow from 38 students in 1988 to 120 in 1995. With base funding from the City of Berkeley secured through the year 2000, the program has been able to attract additional funds from the Federal government Office of Substance Abuse Prevention, to support its expansion.

RAP is now widely seen as a valuable community resource in that it has provided a viable alternative for serving the needs of delinquent youth, before they get into deeper trouble. For the youth in the program, RAP counselors have supplied crucial emotional and psychological support, providing the stability lacking in their families and environment. Furthermore, as the program's links with the community have strengthened, participation in RAP has evolved from stigma to status: whereas participants in the program previously viewed RAP as yet another means to punish kids, the participants and their peers now report that membership in RAP is a privilege. According to one participant:

I know a lot of friends who say, "You're in RAP-- dang you're lucky". My friends want to get into RAP. My neighbor wants to be in it too. People from Oakland want to have programs like RAP. *56

RAP Evaluation
Very Low
Very High
Self Esteem
Effort/Attitude Toward School
(--) 9
Drug and Alcohol Use
(moderate use)
School Attendance
Police Contacts
*All numbers represent percentages (N=38). Figures in parentheses are based on data collected at the beginning of the program in 1998. The adjacent number represents finding from 1992 evaluation study. *57


Finding ways to challenge the cultural norms that support violent behavior must become the central issue of violence-prevention initiatives. The cultural forces that legitimatize and condone violent behavior must be challenged in context, and we must find ways to replace those norms with others that affirm respect for life and nonviolence. This might include an approach taken to counter the violent images promoted through some rap music by supporting those rap artists who produce music with nonviolent messages rather than attacking the artists, the recording companies, or the young people who listen to gangsta rap. If we want to see fewer juvenile delinquents graduate to more serious forms of crime we must invest more resources into re-entry programs that facilitate the transition from prison to the streets, so that young people seeking to avoid peer groups and neighborhood influences that reinforce violent behavior can do so with support.

Finally, if we acknowledge that youth violence is really a symptom of a larger societal preoccupation with violence, then we must stop allowing kids, particularly minority youth, to be scapegoated for this problem. Young people living in our nation's ghettos have no control over the availability of guns or the flow of drugs into their communities. They cannot influence filmmakers and producers who exploit our national obsession with violence through their movies and television programs.

And young people certainly have no control over the availability of jobs and educational opportunities or the continued deterioration of urban areas. We must hold young people responsible for their actions and apply clear consequences for misdeeds and violent behavior, but we must also recognize that these youth did not create the conditions in which violence flourishes. We can do a much better job of preventing youth violence, but to do so we must begin by acknowledging our collective responsibility for challenging the cultural influences and social and economic conditions that foster and promote it.

Summary of Policy Recommendations

Given the failure of current policies aimed at reducing and preventing youth violence, policymakers must encourage and support local governments and schools in devising alternative strategies that address the cultural conditions which normalize violent behavior. While there may be no blueprint or singular approach that can be adopted or applied uniformly, community-based initiatives should consider the following points when developing a new program.

Community Involvement

Whenever possible, involve community residents, especially young people, in the development and implementation of an intervention program. Solicit their input and provide them the resources needed to participate fully. Use the planning process to learn more about how community residents and young people perceive the problem and its causes.


Use the planning process for open discussion and brainstorming of solutions. Though all ideas must ultimately be judged on the basis of their feasibility, avoid premature closure of debate or dismissal of ideas because they seem unconventional. Due to its complex nature, effective strategies for countering youth violence will undoubtedly require a considerable amount of time to materialize, and a willingness to experiment with novel approaches.


Avoid turf battles and the politicization of the program by including relevant agencies and organizations on an oversight committee that remains intact after the intervention program has been implemented. Keep youth and community residents involved, but also include representatives from local businesses, law enforcement and the courts, local churches, community groups and non-profit service agencies. Develop shared ownership and responsibility for the success of the intervention.


Document the impact of the intervention through the collection of data related to manifestations of the problem. This may include crime reports and school disciplinary records, but can also survey data on perceptions of the problem. Use the oversight committee as a source of continuous information to identify problems that may develop and to monitor how the program is working.

The article was originally published in the summer of 1995 by the Harvard Education Review.

Published in In Motion Magazine April 28, 1996.