EFFECTIVENESS OF MEDIATION PROGRAMS QUESTIONED

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* Despite the proliferation of violence-prevention programs in schools, some researchers are expressing skepticism about their effectiveness.

While the majority of programs have not been carefully evaluated, early evidence suggests that violence-prevention programs are less effective than expected, says Patrick Tolan of the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Illinois now requires school districts to provide violence-prevention or conflict-resolution education in grades 4 through 12. But ``just because you have a program doesn't mean that you are actually doing something about violence,'' Mr. Tolan says.

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``There is little convincing evidence that these programs bring about sustainable behavior change,'' says Daniel Webster, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In some cases, conflict-resolution programs may actually be doing more harm than good, Mr. Webster says. ``The danger is that politicians, parents, and the public may be fooled into thinking there's an easy solution to this problem: All we have to do is put a curriculum in our schools to teach our kids not to be violent.'' School-based programs could end up being used to provide ``political cover'' and distract the public from the real causes of youth violence, Webster argues.

``I don't think a child will be harmed by participating in these programs,'' Webster says, ``and it's certainly likely that many will benefit by gaining social skills but probably not in terms of measurable decreased risk of being a victim or a perpetrator of serious violence.'' The most egregious forms of youth violence, such as gun-related deaths, are ``unlikely to respond to these kinds of interventions,'' Webster says.

Analysis of school-based programs is a politically volatile issue. ``A lot of people are very invested in these programs, and they want to believe that they work,'' Webster says. ``I personally am not convinced.''

Both skeptics and proponents agree, however, that more research is needed. ``I'm not saying this is the last word,'' Webster says. ``There's a whole lot more science coming down the road on this.''

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