Campus & Community

Looking for causes of teen violence

5 min read

$5 million grant to fund major SPH project for Boston area

David Hemenway
Deborah Prothrow-Stith

David Hemenway Deborah Prothrow-Stith In response to a recent rise in teenage violence in and around Boston, the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the School of Public Health (SPH) is helping launch a major new project aimed at pinpointing causes and potential solutions for this disturbing growing threat. The Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center (HYVPC) is funded through a five-year $5 million grant provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The grant will support efforts to stem the tide of youth-related violence in the Boston area through broad local partnerships involving scientific and nonprofit institutions along with a variety of educational and community groups. Making the streets safer for everyone is the bottom line.

“Of all developed countries, the United States has the worst lethal violence problem and those at particularly high risk are adolescents and young adults,” says David Hemenway, professor of health policy and director of research for the center. “Despite success in reducing firearm violence in the mid-1990s in the United States, rates of lethal violence among youth and general violence by girls have been rising, and appear to be rising again in Boston.”

Indeed, according to the Boston Police Department, nearly 2,000 teenagers (between 14 and 19 years old) were arrested for “Part 1” violent crimes (ranging from homicide and rape to burglary and vehicle theft) in 1999. That’s a 25 percent increase from just four years earlier.

“To address these trends the center will fund major projects to identify risk factors for youth suicide and for violence perpetrated by girls, to evaluate violence prevention programs in place in Boston public middle schools, and to evaluate police and hospital youth referral programs,” Hemenway explains. “The center will also fund a wide variety of small research projects and provide seed money for new innovative pilot projects.

“Our goal is always to find solutions,” he continues. “We will be doing a number of evaluations of interventions to see if they help reduce youth violence, and we’re also looking at trying to understand better the risk factors. We’ll also be doing a lot of training, but the long-run goal is not just to create scientific knowledge, but eventually also to help ameliorate the problem.”

The key, according to Deborah Prothrow-Stith, SPH professor of public health practice and center director for programming, will be to reach across current boundaries to bring together a variety of people and organizations who, combined, can have a tremendous impact.

“To prevent youth violence, we have to recognize it as a public health issue that affects all of us and is something that we all (physicians, parents, legislators, police officers, etc.) have to work together to prevent,” says Prothrow-Stith. “The center is ideally structured to help alleviate the youth violence problem because it builds upon the violence prevention work that Boston individuals and agencies pioneered by addressing risk and resiliency at several levels.”

The HYVPC partners include the Educational Development Center in Newton, the New England Medical Center, the Boston mayor’s office, the Boston public schools, regional state health offices, community health centers, and a number of other nonprofit agencies including Teens Against Gang Violence, the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, and the Hispanic Office of Planning and Evaluation.

“We have committed to providing training and technical support for the agencies. The agencies, in turn have agreed to recruit stakeholders in their communities to partner with the center,” says Marci Feldman, assistant director of the Violence Prevention Program at SPH and center scientist. “Partner agencies, community members, and center faculty will examine community assets and develop an action plan that utilizes community assets to meet community needs.

“We, as academicians and academic institutions, are not coming in and telling the community what to do,” Feldman continues. “We are offering to share our expertise in research, evaluation, and training, and asking them to share their expertise about the community.”

Harvard will be home to one of 10 violence prevention centers across the nation funded by the CDC grants. Four other “comprehensive centers” are being established at Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Alabama, and the University of Hawaii. Five developing centers in other areas are in the formative stage.

Each of the centers will operate independently although Hemenway envisions a cooperative and supportive relationship among all the researchers involved in the project. “Everyone will try to help each other with new ideas, sharing better ways of reaching kids or teaching,” Hemenway says. “The goal is collaboration.”

Another goal, of course, is to elicit positive results in local neighborhoods.

“From my perspective,” Prothrow-Stith says, “I will consider the project a success if we are able to add value to the community-level work that is already occurring by providing resources and a platform for community ideas. If we are able to accomplish that task I think the data and the community members themselves will report that their communities are flourishing.”