Teens as Partners in Helping Reduce Gun Crime and Violence

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This post is part of a series on Galvanizing the Civic Sector to Reduce Gun Violence.  The series focuses on what several sectors – including parents, teens, schools, hospitals, the faith community, and city leaders – can do, independent of state and federal legislative advocacy, to reduce violence and the high number of gun-related deaths and injuries plaguing America’s communities.  Author Jack Calhoun, senior consultant to both NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education and Families and the U.S. Department of Justice and former president and CEO of the National Crime Prevention Council, is developing this series with support from The California Endowment. 

Controlling, fixing, educating or even enduring (“getting through these teen years”) seem best to describe our normal policy framings for youth.

Rarely do we communicate to teens that we need them, that we cannot solve pressing local problems without them as partners.

We usually wait until trouble occurs, and then respond.  We have developed a finely-honed language of pathology, while our language for eliciting and developing strength lags far behind.

We need another word in our policy lexicon regarding teens, namely, “claim.”  Isolation kills.  Youth disconnected from family, neighborhood, and school face bleak and dangerous futures.  Teens need to know that we trust them, that we need their help, and that we need and value them.

Evaluations show positive results when teens are involved as active partners in helping adults address community problems.  Results include: increases in self-esteem and empathy; increases in confidence; expanded horizons (e.g., “I now plan to go to college!”); less trouble (for those involved in the criminal justice system); greater ability to handle responsibility and make better decisions; and a change in teens’ concept of time, from nothing beyond today or tomorrow to “I have future plans.”  Such initiatives demonstrate to adults that youth can be viewed as assets and contributors, and their involvement spurs others – from the corporate, faith-based, philanthropic and civic and governmental sectors – to act.

Teens want to take pride in themselves and their school and community.  When acknowledged, when viewed as competent and given the opportunity and skills to shoulder responsibility, both their confidence and skill levels increase.  In the crime and violence prevention arena,  there are no shortage of issues to which teen talents can be applied, including but not limited to: alcohol and drug abuse prevention; bullying prevention; conflict management; diversity awareness; and safety at home, in school, in local neighborhoods, and on the Internet.  Teens can play an especially important role in addressing violence that disproportionately affects their age group.

All teens can give.  Issues and talents vary.  The high school athlete can coach; the painter can design murals, the singer, anti-violence rap songs; the listener can mediate; the academic can conduct polls about teen experience with violence and analyze the results; the “politician” can pull people together, forging linkages with the school, community and city council.

Every teen can do something to reduce violence.

The following 13 ideas highlight some of the ways in which teens can make a difference in their school and community:

  1. Events at home, at school or with friends can trigger anger and frustration.  Seek help; talk it out before your anger escalates into fighting, even violence.
  2. Refuse to bring any weapons to school.
  3. Help others settle disputes peaceably.  Start or join a peer mediation program, helping classmates settle disputes without fists or weapons.
  4. Start a “Big Buddies/Little Buddies” program in which high school youth take kids entering junior high school under their wings, mentoring them to help ease their transitions from elementary school to middle or junior high school.
  5. Start an anonymous crime reporting system in conjunction with school officials. Reporting a crime in time could save a life.
  6. Help change the culture in your school by starting an “I Pledge No Violence” campaign.  Give each student a Pledge Button after they have filled out a form describing their pledge.  Examples: “I pledge to welcome new students, helping them feel at home.”  “I refuse to carry weapons to school.” “I will report crimes when I see them.”  “I will make sure my little brother/sister gets to school safely.” You can help change a culture of violence:  Build momentum in your school by reporting on progress during morning announcements and at school assemblies.
  7. Find other ways to support an anti-violence campaign in your school or youth center: artists can paint murals and design brochures; musicians can write anti-violence/pro-peace songs and raps; athletes can help coach younger kids; math students can conduct surveys; students interested in communications can film candid interviews about violence, even airing them on local TV stations and YouTube and in front of key audiences. And everyone, including school staff, can help scrub out graffiti.
  8. Start a group in math or civics classes (or perhaps the whole class) to set up and conduct a poll about how kids feel about violence, where they feel safe and unsafe, and what suggestions they have about how things might be changed.  Seek credit for your polling design and statistical analysis.  English students can get credit for writing up the results and presenting them to school officials, assemblies, and even the city council.
  9. Start a “teen court” with help from a local judge or district or U.S. Attorney.  Youth serve as judges, prosecutors, jury members and defense counsels.  Depending on local and state laws and school regulations, courts can hear cases, make findings and impose sentences, most of which include restitution.
  10. If you are a victim of violence, you can bear witness to the effects of violence by sharing your story with city council members, state legislators and at school assemblies.  Some youth victims, many of them in wheelchairs, have spoken to individual classes in schools where violence is high.
  11. Take part in park or neighborhood beautification projects. Investing energy in community improvement provides more attractive surroundings, which instill both young people and adults with a sense of pride in their neighborhood.
  12. Start a youth council to provide city and county leaders with youths’ perspectives on how crime and violence affect their lives, recommendations as to what the government and the community might do, and a description of how youth pledge to help.  The council might launch a “Youth Violence Prevention Summit” where youth from across the community come together to voice their concerns.  In some cities, youth have been given seats on citywide violence prevention policy groups.
  13. Enroll teens who have harmed the community in such betterment work as graffiti removal, helping to build a Habitat for Humanity house, helping to restore a vandalized playground, and assisting frail elderly residents with home upkeep or shopping.