Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002
Working with Children (3/3)
In response to the ineffectiveness of the "Just Say No" approach to preventing firearm violence, researchers have developed curricula that help children build the skills they need to resist peer pressure, make good choices, and resolve conflict. One of the most commonly used of these programs, Straight Talk about Risks (STAR), was developed by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence for children in preschool through the 12th grade. Drug Strategies, a research institute in Washington, D.C., describes the program as well-organized and well-grounded in prevention research.55 Most STAR lessons require several sessions to complete. Some of the lessons for younger children include "Making Safe and Smart Decisions," "Having and Obeying Rules," and "Solving Problems without Fighting." Lessons for older children emphasize understanding emotions that might lead to conflict, messages in the media and peer pressure, and the ramifications of gun violence for victims and their families. Across all ages, the lessons are taught through role-play, art projects, group activities and discussions, repetition, and multimedia presentations.
Nevertheless, the evaluation of STAR has yielded inconsistent and inconclusive results, and the program has not been shown to modify the actual behavior of children.72 One study evaluated the use of a firearm safety training program that incorporated many of the same lessons as STAR over a one-week period. The program was ineffective in deterring children's play with guns, despite an increase in children's knowledge about the dangers of guns.47
Another skills-based program, Safe Alternatives and Violence Education (SAVE), was developed by the San Jose Police Department in California to reduce violent youth activities and weapons possession, to teach youth how to manage anger and conflict situations, and to increase youth and parent interaction among juvenile offenders ages 10 to 18. In an evaluation of this program, 78% of the 1,231 juvenile offenders who participated were violation-free two years after the program ended. However, the results should be interpreted with caution as no comparison group was used.73
Another approach to reducing firearm violence, particularly among older children and adolescents, incorporates a focus on the consequences of gun violence. Typically, these programs use graphic depictions of gunshot victims with the intent of "shocking" youth into resisting future gun use.
Despite their appeal, scare tactics are unlikely to be effective. An unpublished evaluation of Cops and Docs, one program using such tactics, revealed a significant impact on student knowledge but no significant change in attitudes and behaviors.72 Because adolescents are often susceptible to the belief that they are invulnerable to harmful outcomes,74 gruesome images and messages of "this could happen to you" are unlikely to affect them. These programs may even be potentially harmful because susceptible youth who witness violence have been observed to become more violent as a result.55 Borrowing from related literature, researchers have found that scare tactics make risky sexual practices more appealing to adolescents described as "sensation-seekers,"75 increase stress and alcohol consumption in sexually active teens,76 and are ineffective in deterring adolescents from using marijuana.77
A final approach to teaching children, particularly older youth, about firearm violence is the use of peers as educators. Most peer-based programs focus on providing or suggesting alternative activities to gun violence and reducing rates of adolescent gun carrying. Such programs are based on the premise that only peers can convince youth to "put down their weapons." However, most of these programs fail to provide adequate alternatives for solving conflict, and do not confront the other reasons youth have for using or carrying guns, such as attaining status, getting attention, retaliation, or fear for personal safety.73
Hands without Guns, developed by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence in Washington, D.C., is perhaps the best-known peer-based program to reduce youth gun violence. Targeting junior high and high school students, Hands without Guns is both a public health and an educational campaign, using theater groups, art centers, video clubs, and other after-school projects to change youth attitudes about gun possession. The program includes an evaluation component: a survey to assess changes in attitude and self-reported behaviors among the youth who participate. The unpublished results of this survey of more than 400 students found that of the 38% of youth who could identify the program, only 1.3% carried a gun. Of the 62% who could not identify the program, 10.3% carried a gun.78 These results should be interpreted with caution, however, because other more relevant variables may be correlated with being able to identify the program. For example, youth who are frequently truant from school and who may not therefore be able to identify a program presented during the school day may be more likely to carry guns. Moreover, self-reporting may overestimate the success of a program, particularly when individuals are asked to reveal illegal behavior.
Furthermore, similar peer-based programs designed to address other concerns of adolescence have not met with great success. For example, according to an evaluation of Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD), a nationally known peer-based program to reduce the rates of drunken driving among adolescents, students at schools with SADD chapters and those at schools without SADD chapters reported similar rates of driving while intoxicated or of riding with a drunken peer.79 Evidence regarding the effectiveness of peers in influencing youth to adopt healthy behaviors is limited, however; more research is needed.80