Where Youth Violence and Environment
by Cande Iveson, Citizen's For Missouri's
Children, No Safe Place, Kids Count Report on Children and
Violence, April, 1995. Reprinted here with permission.
National and state data reveal areas in which high crime and other social
problems overlap. For example, statistics indicate that persons with low
incomes are at a higher risk of becoming crime victims. The KIDS COUNT in
Missouri 1994 Report reveals an overlap between those counties with the
highest juvenile crime rates and those with high rates of poverty. Gang
activity, substance abuse, increased access to guns, and inadequate and
unsafe schools also appear to be more prevalent in areas with high criminal
"I never had enough money to buy
a school lunch ... We couldn't afford winter shoes. I was cold a lot ..."
(Adolescent in residential treatment for
While criminal activity has been increasing among juveniles and adults
alike, poverty is also at an all time high. Recent data from the Center on
Budget and Policy Priorities (1993) illustrate that the gap between the poor
and the wealthy is at its widest point in 25 years. In 1993, 39.3 million
people were considered poor; 39.7 million had no health insurance. A recent
report by the Children s Defense Fund warned that if present trends
continue, 17 million American children will be living in poverty by the year
2001. Though poverty is not by itself a predictor of community violence,
data suggest that high-poverty areas frequently have unusually high levels
of youth violence. Analysis of 1994 KIDS COUNT in Missouri data indicates
that Mississippi and Pemiscot counties and St. Louis City have some of the
highest levels of both poverty and youth crime.
Elijah Anderson, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania,
believes that poor youngsters turn to violence as a remedy for
powerlessness. Criminal activity often flourishes in environments that offer
few resources or alternative activities for youth. When few job
opportunities or role models exist, criminal activities can provide
excitement, status, and financial gain.
"As I was leaving my house with
two other friends I was shot in the back. I thought it was never going to
happen to me." (15 year old girl)
According to a Citizens Guide to Street Gangs distributed by the St.
Louis County Police, 90% of all male gang members have been arrested by age
18. Ninety-five percent will not finish high school, and 60% are dead or in
prison by age 20. The movement of gang activity into a town or neighborhood
is often followed by an increase in violent crime.
What is the reward gang behavior brings to juveniles? In the absence of
academic and career opportunities, gang membership can provide an identity
and a purpose. Gangs also offer protection, camaraderie, and excitement to
young people. According to the St. Louis County Police, "Gangs are ego
support systems; they are viewed by kids as launch pads to becoming big
|Estimates suggest that almost 5,000 gangs exist
nationally providing memberships to a quarter of a million people.
In some cities, especially those reporting recent gang problems, 90%
of gang members are juveniles (Howell, 1994).|
|The average gang member is 17 years old, but
their ages can vary between 12-25 years of age (Howell, 1994).|
|Gangs are a growing problem throughout Missouri,
including rural communities (Ozarks Fighting Back, 1993).|
|The St. Louis area alone has more than 120
Gang activity accounts for only part of youth crime, however, and it is
certainly not the only peer influence that encourages violence. Mass media
television, radio, publications, and films glorify violence. In the U.S.,
children watch an average of 28 hours of T.V. weekly. Five violent acts per
hour are observable in prime-time programming. Twenty five violent acts per
hour are observable in cartoons (Johnston, 1993). While it is true that
television violence and aggressive behavior correlate (Center for Media and
Values, 1993), one can also argue that T.V., music, gangsta rap, and movie
content all mirror the society in which they are created. Artists say that
they produce what others are willing to buy. Unfortunately, violence sells
"My neighborhood is bad, they
take drugs and shoot. Last week this man got shot. And got threw under a
car and that man got pick up and was put in a bag. My hobby is skating and
jump rope." (Elementary school child)
Drug and alcohol abuse can also lead to increased youth violence. When
students from 32,000 middle and high schools across the country were
evaluated, those using drugs were "more than twice as likely to get
into physical fights, three times more likely to be truant from school, and
four times more likely to commit vandalism" (Safe 2000 Community
Partnership, 1994). Drugs and alcohol contribute to an unsafe environment
for juveniles and increased violence among juveniles.
"My friend had been killed three
days before . . . I thought I better carry my gun to protect myself."
It is illegal for juveniles to purchase firearms. However, many children
have access to firearms, and they carry and use these weapons regularly.
Many children and families express fears regarding the increased violence in
schools and communities. This fear of violence itself increases rates of gun
ownership, as youths and adults seek to defend their own safety.
Unfortunately, an increased number of guns often leads to unintentional
shootings as well as criminal violence. Nowhere is injury and death by
gunfire more observable than in our nation's population of young people.
|Guns were used to kill 222 American children
under the age of ten, and 6,795 young people under the age of 25
in 1990 (Children s Defense Fund, 1993).|
|3000 children in the United States under the
age of 20 die each year as a result of unintentional gunshot
wounds (Coalition for America s Children, 1994).|
|According to the Center to Prevent Handgun
Violence (1993), 48% of all African-American teenage males who
died in 1988 were killed by guns.|
|Youth murders that involved guns increased
125% between 1984 and 1990 (Center to Prevent Handgun Violence,
Inadequate and Unsafe
"We've grown accustomed to
violence in the community, but people expect kids to be safe in
Coleman St. Louis County Police Officer)
Children living in high-poverty areas frequently attend schools that are
under-funded and ill-equipped to meet their educational and social needs.
Increasingly, schools are asked to meet a variety of demands in these
communities when often they can barely provide the basics of education. As a
result, many young people leave school before graduation because they see no
connection between academic effort and future success. Citizens for Missouri
s Children has found a strong relationship between rates of poverty and low
high school completion rates in Missouri counties.
"The problems of the streets in
urban areas, as teachers often note, frequently spill over into public
schools" (Jonathan Kozol, Savage
As if underfunded and ill-equipped facilities were not enough of an
obstacle to learning, kids today are experiencing more and more violence in
their schools. No school, regardless of its location or its relative wealth,
is immune to this problem.
|School violence has increased significantly over
the past five years in nearly 40% of America s cities and towns,
according to a 1994 survey of 700 cities by the National League of
|Large cities claimed that 72% of their school
violence was attributable in part to gang activity.|
|In 1990, one out of 25 high school students
carried a gun (Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, 1993).|
|71 students and teachers nationwide were killed
with guns in their schools beween the years 1985/86 and 1989/90
(Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, 1993).|
|135,000 guns are brought to school each day
(Coalition for America s Children, 1994).|
Many schools are taking an active role in reducing violence within their
buildings and playgrounds and, ultimately, in their communities. Conflict
resolution and peer mediation are included in the curriculum in a number of
school districts. Schools have the advantage of being both a place in which
skills can be taught and a controlled environment in which those skills can
be practiced. Another approach to violence reduction in schools is the
"fight-free" school concept. High expectations, school pride, and
recognition of success motivate students to refrain from fighting. By giving
visible and vocal messages that fighting is not acceptable and by praising
students success in achieving fight-free school days, the social norm is
shaped so that fighting is not socially acceptable behavior.
Although these skills are most often taught in middle and high schools,
there is a growing recognition that teaching violence prevention to very
young children is of critical importance. The Nursery Foundation, a child
care provider in St. Louis that has been an anchor for the neighborhood
since its founding in 1947, has been in the vanguard of teaching children to
change the attitudes and behaviors which contribute to violence. Children
ages 3-6 are taught empathy (how to identify and predict the feelings of
others), skills in problem solving and resolving conflict without fighting,
and ways to reduce their stress and channel angry feelings in positive ways.
The Nursery Foundation utilizes the "Second Step Violence Prevention
Curriculum" in their work with children.
Issues of crime and violence as they relate to juveniles are extremely
complex. Many factors correlate with high crime rates, including poverty,
negative peer culture, drug and alcohol abuse, ready access to guns, and
poor educational opportunity. Successful prevention must take these
complexities into account.
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Revised June 14, 1995
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