Chicago schools get new tool in fight against youth violence

A new program announced Wednesday, seeks to stem youth violence in Chicago schools by reaching out to students through sports and counseling. It hopes to become a national model.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Two Chicago nonprofits, together with the University of Chicago, unveiled a counseling and sports program Wednesday aimed at stemming chronic youth violence in Chicago's public schools.

The problem is long-standing, but it received international attention in September when Derrion Albert, a Chicago Public School (CPS) junior, was killed when he was caught in a brawl as he walked home from school. The incident was captured on videotape. Since September of 1997, more than 500 CPS students have been shot.

Chicago is employing a growing array of efforts against youth violence – including a new $30 million CPS program that tries to target the 1,200 kids most at-risk for violence. The counseling and sports program announced Wednesday will be rigorously evaluated by University of Chicago researchers.

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The hope is that the program, if effective, could be a model for Chicago and other cities dealing with growing violence among young men.

"Gun violence makes life nearly unlivable in some communities in Chicago," says Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab and one of the researchers who will be studying the imitative.

Professor Ludwig adds that this doesn't set out to be a "silver bullet" solution to the problem. But he hopes it will prove an effective – and, at a cost of about $1,000 per student, fairly cost-effective – way to help make inroads.

"We want to think about a portfolio of things you can be doing," he says.

Becoming A Man

Under the new initiative, called Becoming A Man – Sports Edition, boys in 15 schools will meet once a week with a BAM counselor for an hour session. They will use discussion, games, role playing, video, and physical exercises to discuss how to take accountability for their actions, develop positive goals, and channel their anger in productive ways, among other things.

The group sessions are supplemented with one-on-one counseling, and twice a week the boys – about 550 in total – will also have after-school sports, including wrestling, archery, judo, and boxing run by World Sport Chicago.

"We talk about how to express anger to get results, how to build relationships for the future, how to walk away with dignity," says Tony DiVittorio, the BAM program manager, who developed the program about a decade ago for Youth Guidance, a Chicago social service agency.

Brandon Diaz, a sophomore at Clemente High School who completed the BAM program last year, says it made a big difference for him. "I used to have a lot of savage energy," he says, using a term DiVittorio often uses to describe a negative expression of anger. "I used to break a lot of things."

Now, he says, he's learned how to focus those emotions in a more positive way, and has taught his younger brothers the same techniques. In the process, he's gone from being a D student to one who earns A's and B's.

Students on the cusp

While the $30 million CPS plan targets the students most heavily at risk, this one works with students on the cusp: those who have started to disengage from school but who still have reasonable attendance rates and seem open to change.

The Crime Lab researchers, meanwhile, will track students' administrative records, court records, and academic records, comparing them to students not in the program and designing the study to give the evaluation the same degree of rigor used in clinical trials in medicine. They selected the BAM program from among 30 proposals after announcing a design competition last spring.

"We don't think it's going to be transformative, but we think it's going to be helpful and generalizable," says Harold Pollack, co-director of the Crime Lab.

Prior research, he notes, has shown that much of the violence is caused by impulsive behavior and relatively minor events that escalated. One murder, for instance, stemmed from a dance contest in which a kid who lost and felt humiliated got a gun and killed the winner in front of the other participants.

"A lot of this intervention is designed for kids to get control of their emotions and slow down," says Professor Pollack. "These kids develop a lot of scripts in dealing with conflict. We want to help them broaden that toolkit."

See also:

Two ways Chicago can curb its youth violence epidemic

Honor student beaten to death: Can Chicago curb youth violence?

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