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Youth perspectives on Violence
and the Implications for Public Policy

-- Part 2 --

Pedro A. Noguera
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera.

Pedro A. Noguera, Ph. D is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.
  • The Implications of Youth Perspectives on Violence for Public Policy
  • Develop strategies that address the underlying causes of violence
  • Involve youth directly in the development of short term and long term solutions

  • Part 3: Provide students with a genuine role in school reform processes.
  • Part 1: Coming to Terms With America's Culture of Violence
  • Click here to open a second browser window to view all references cited.

The Implications of Youth Perspectives on Violence for Public Policy

What should be the form and content of a reasonable set of policies created for the purpose of responding to the experiences of young people with violence in American society, and how should such a policy take youth perspectives into account? This is an important but difficult question. Its importance is derived both from the pressing nature of the problem and from the clear failure of traditional policy strategies. In response to several highly publicized school shootings and violent incidents involving juveniles a number of punitive crime prevention measures have been adopted. Most popular among these is the push to prosecute juveniles as adults when violent crimes are committed. Throughout the country, such measures have been adopted with little if any opposition due to the desperate sense that drastic actions are needed (Donziger 1996). While there is no evidence that punitive approaches are effective in curtailing violence, in the absence of reasonable policy alternatives, “getting tough” with juvenile crime is the only tactic that is considered.

The question of how to respond creatively with policy is also difficult because violence is not an isolated phenomenon that can be treated without consideration of the various factors that contribute to its occurrence. To devise policies that are effective in promoting public safety and that succeed in curtailing expressions of violence would require policymakers to think comprehensively about the nature of the problem. While the cause of violence can not be reduced simply to poverty, neglect, substance abuse, alienation or uncontrolled aggression, any one of these may operate as attendant factors shaping particular acts of aggression (Gilligan 1996)). The complexity surrounding the factors that contribute to violent behavior should compel anyone who would contemplate legal and political remedies to think deeply about the nature of the problem. Unfortunately, deep thinking tends to be in short supply among policy makers on matters like these, and we are more likely to see policy shaped by the tendency to scapegoat and target the most vulnerable sectors of our society.

Academics and activists tend to be more accustomed and comfortable with engaging in criticism than in advocating particular policies. Pressing for specific policy measures, or going a step further by working toward implementing policy alternatives, forces one to enter the murky waters of partial solutions. To work for justice when we know that the courts may never be fair and impartial, or to work to make schools more equitable in a society premised on inequality, it is necessary to have a realistic sense of the limits and possibilities for change at this particular historic juncture. Once we have a sense of what may be possible the challenge is to figure out how to push the limits of policy even further in order to challenge conventional wisdom regarding how to respond to violence. Most importantly, if we hope to have a genuine influence on policy toward violence we must figure out how to be heard and taken seriously within policy debates rather than being content with complaining comfortably from the margins.

Once we have decided to enter the fray of policy debates and to work toward the development of enlightened public policy, we are then confronted with the difficulty involved in educating public officials, the media and the general public to re-think their assumptions about the nature of the problem. This is no small challenge. Prevailing assumptions about the nature of violence (that it is perpetrated by bad people) and the widely held beliefs about what it takes to curtail it (locking up more people), are formidable obstacles. Unless such views can be challenged effectively, it is unlikely that creative alternatives will ever be considered.

As hard as this kind of educational work may be it is not impossible. In fact, the failure of current policy approaches often creates the opportunity for alternatives to be considered. A recent example from the Oakland public schools reveals how this can work. During the late 1990s several schools in Oakland experienced inter-racial violence, some of which resulted in significant injuries as students began arming themselves. As might be expected, the District responded by calling upon the police department to quell disturbances when they occurred. It also sought to increase spending on security during a period of fiscal austerity. Eventually, the police department began to express frustration with these tactics, and openly acknowledged that focusing exclusively on security to respond to the problem was not effective, nor would it prevent future disturbances.

Recognizing the opportunity created by the frustration of the police and the unimaginative response of the school district, Youth Together (YT), a newly created youth advocacy organization, stepped into the policy void. Pointing out that many of the young people involved in the inter-racial violence had no knowledge of the history or culture of the groups they were fighting against, YT called for the development of student-led multi-racial teams that would be trained to conduct educational workshops for their peers. Once YT got access to the schools it began working with students to organize school change campaigns, based on the assumption that greater multi-racial cooperation could be achieved by providing students with the opportunity to work together in pursuit of their common interests.

Faced with the failure of their own reactive policies, the District supported the YT strategy that proved to be relatively successful. For example, at Castlemont High School in East Oakland, the site that had experienced the greatest number of incidents of racial violence, students organized several successful teach-ins under the banner “One Land, One People”. These student-led events provided an opportunity for students to learn about the history and culture of their peers and to openly discuss issues that had been the source of conflict. Out of these discussions, YT initiated a school change campaign focused on the need for a health center and cafeteria. This initiative brought a larger number of students from different backgrounds together over a sustained period in an effort that required frequent meetings, protests, and lobbying of public officials. ( 8 )

The experience of groups like Youth Together shows that under the right conditions it may be possible to influence the direction and nature of public policy. The YT experience is significant because the solutions that were developed were conceived by students themselves, and though YT received support from adults, their efforts were led and organized by students. This kind of approach is a clear example of how the central goal of this collection of papers -- allowing the voices of youth to be heard -- can be put into action. In the final section of this paper I will draw from my work with schools and youth organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area to put forward four basic principles that I believe should be reflected in policy positions on issues related to violence.

1. Develop strategies that address the underlying causes of violence.

While it may not be possible to isolate the causes of particular incidents of violence and to devise interventions for each of these, it should be possible to develop strategies that address the most salient factors that contribute to patterns of violent behavior. Such an approach is more likely to be effective at preventing violent behavior than merely relying upon the threat of punishment. Adolescents generally, and low income youth especially, often have an ambiguous conception of their future (Erickson 1968). Research on teen pregnancy and college attendance has shown that helping young people to cultivate a realistic sense of how they can improve their lives in the future can be an effective means of helping them to change their behavior in the present (Luker 1996; Steinberg 1996).

A number of very successful youth development programs take such an approach. For example, the Real Alternative Program (RAP) based in San Francisco and Oakland, California, and the Omega Boys Club located at the Portrero Hills Housing Projects in San Francisco, provide comprehensive services to young people whose living circumstances have placed them at-risk of violence and other hardships. These nationally recognized programs provide tutoring, mentoring, job training and placement, counseling, college tours and advising, and field trips to the young people they serve. Evaluations of both programs have shown that young people who participate in these programs are less likely to engage in violence and more likely to graduate from high school and attend college than similar young people who do not participate in such programs (Noguera 1995). Given the small number of young people served by such programs, there is a pressing need for policy makers to provide funding for replication and expansion of these kinds of services and to actively support such strategies as a central element of any violence prevention policy initiative.

2. Involve youth directly in the development of short term and long term solutions.

When urgent situations arise that require an immediate response, young people should be provided the opportunity to engage in the process of thinking through temporary and long-term solutions. Although such efforts at inclusion require additional time, the ideas which are produced are more likely to be supported by young people and therefore more likely to be effective when implemented. As several of the papers in this collection have shown, young people often have insights that differ substantially from those of adults. By encouraging young people to share their views regarding how to respond to violent incidents, there is greater likelihood that more creative and effective strategies will be developed.

For example, following a stabbing at Castlemont High School in Oakland 1993, students were invited to participate in a discussion with District officials over what should be done to restore a sense of order and safety at the school. One of the recommendations that most surprised the adults was the suggestion that all students wear temporary identification badges during school hours (the assailant had been a non-student who entered the school illegally). In Oakland, the idea that students should wear ID badges was loaded with a history of controversy because the last time such a proposal had been made it led to the assassination of former superintendent Marcus Foster by the Sibonese Liberation Army ( 9 ) in 1974. In addition to calling for the ID badges, students also suggested that security officers should be instructed not to harass students wearing badges when they were walking through the halls. As a longer term solution, students called for meetings among Black and Latino parents because they believed that unless adults had the opportunity to get to know one another, students would continue to act upon the distrust they learned at home and the fighting would not cease.

As it turned out, the short-term strategy succeeded in restoring a climate of safety at the school. Students willingly wore their ID badges and there were no confrontations created by increased security at the school. However, no action was taken to promote communication among parents. Even though it was generally known that the steady growth of the Mexican population was producing tensions in what had traditionally been an African American community, no efforts were made to find ways to increase contact between adults from these two communities. Once the immediate crisis was over, City and School District officials went back to ignoring the tensions that were building in East Oakland, and not surprisingly, violence between Black and Mexican students continued to plague Castlemont and other schools in East Oakland in subsequent years.

  • Part 3: Provide students with a genuine role in school reform processes.
  • Part 1: Coming to Terms With America's Culture of Violence

Published in In Motion Magazine September 28, 2001
Article # ER010930001

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