Cindy Rodriguez, 14, Juan Moreno, 20, and Lonnie Washington, 25, wheeled themselves into Miramonte Elementary School with a message for the wide-eyed sixth-graders: This could happen to you.
Only a few years ago, each of the paraplegics had attended a central Los Angeles school like this one, its broken windows--patched with plywood and sprayed with graffiti--framing the disorder outside. Then, when she was 12, Cindy walked outside to get her mail and was struck by gang cross-fire; at 12, Juan was accidentally shot by a 6-year-old cousin playing with a gun; and at 24, Lonnie was shot in the back running from carjackers.
As members of Teens on Target, a new Downey-based violence-prevention group, they pleaded with the youngsters not to join gangs, not to touch guns, to walk away from fights, to always give an armed robber whatever he wants and to tell their troubles to a sympathetic adult.
But will Teens on Target work? Can any program prevent youth violence? Despite a proliferation of violence-prevention programs, no one knows for sure.
In response to what seems an already overwhelming yet rapidly escalating problem, the number of violence-prevention programs nationwide has grown from 80 to 300 in the last two years. "People are out there on their own trying to do something, attempting to find some answers," said Renee Wilson-Brewer, director of the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center, which publishes and evaluates violence-prevention programs for adolescents.
Thus far, few of the programs have been scientifically evaluated. Said Wilson-Brewer: "Their attitude is, 'We need to do something, and we need to do something right now to stem this tide in our community.' "
Clearly, the direction of the new efforts is away from more prisons, stiffer sentences, more metal detectors or curfews.
"Our traditional way was to use a fast law-enforcement response and a penal system to deal with it. Recently, the thinking has begun to change," said Gary Yates, director of California's Wellness Foundation, which this summer begins the largest youth violence-prevention initiative to date in the U.S.
The foundation will fund a variety of programs, including community service groups, and efforts to lobby the entertainment industry to tone down violence in TV and movies. It will also attempt to change public attitudes about youngsters' access to guns, drugs and alcohol. The $25-million initiative aims to show "prevention is the answer, not 911 calls, arrest and incarceration," Yates said. The initiative also created the Pacific Center for Violence Prevention in San Francisco and will evaluate each program it funds.
The new thinking about violence prevention often follows a public-health approach which uses three stages of strategies to prevent disease. Where primary prevention focuses on education to change attitudes before a high-risk behavior like smoking begins, second- and third-level strategies involve intervention such as stop-smoking classes or even lung surgery to respond to the problem after it has begun.
A leader in this public-health approach, Harvard's Deborah Prothrow-Stith argues that violence cannot be prevented by after-the-fact school suspension, arrests or incarceration, just as cancer cannot be prevented by more and better lung surgery.
"We consider violence a learned behavior," she said. If that is true, it can be unlearned. Preventing it, as one would prevent smoking, is a matter of attacking the known risk factors: childhood abuse or the witnessing of violence, excessive exposure to violent heroes in the media, access to guns.
Because most homicides and other forms of violence involve people who know one another, many now argue prevention must address early childhood experiences, such as child abuse, that are correlated with anti-social or aggressive patterns. Some of the best documented programs start with infants.
In these programs, which originated in Hawaii, social workers identify mothers in the hospital who are at risk of abusing their newborns--teen-agers, substance abusers, victims of previous violence. Paraprofessionals then visit the homes of those who accept the counseling and other support services. In some cases, courts may mandate the service, but it is usually accepted voluntarily, said Lorraine Lima, director of a similar program, the 4-year-old Bienvenidos Family Services in East Los Angeles.
In Hawaii's Healthy Start program, there were no cases of child abuse among the 241 high-risk families who participated in the first three years of the program, 1985-88. In high-risk families not served, the rates of child abuse were three times higher than in the general population.
Lima said Bienvenidos has reduced the stress factors that lead to violence--and to children being placed in foster care. Regardless of the parents' environment, she said, "We have seen the most tremendous (success) stories. It has to do with being isolated, (having) no access to resources. . . . In some of the most horrible stories, the moms talk about their own terrible abuse situations growing up. But they have made a real choice not to put their children in the same situation."
"Those programs have proved to be more effective to children in high-risk families than any other type of program," said Deanne Tilton Durfee, executive director of the Los Angeles County Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect. "It makes sense: Not only are babies in a lot of trouble, but a lot of young mothers are sent home (after childbirth) without any plan for follow up or even sometimes a home."
A bill pending in the state Legislature would require early intervention for mothers at risk to be a priority, said Durfee. It represents a growing recognition that child abuse and later violence are connected, she said.
This month the California Youth Authority will start a three-year parenting program for 200 incarcerated young fathers, most of whom had abusive or negligent or absent fathers themselves. Twenty percent of the 8,300 youths, ages 13 to 25, are already fathers, and most are unmarried, said Walt Jones, program director.
The program will teach them that they can be the type of father they want to be, regardless of how they were raised, Jones said. He hopes to expand the program to brothers and father figures.
Jones said no one expects the Los Angeles Police Department to see a drop in crime rates as a result of this program. But in addition to reducing child abuse, he hopes to strengthen the family life of the young men so they will not try to fulfill those needs in gangs.
Although some feel hopeless about the already-incarcerated, Jones said, "My fear is, if we write off this group, we're not going to have a much better group coming along behind to deal with."
Others are pessimistic about improving the quality of parenting for the children who need it the most.
Jack Wallace, chairman for the Victim Advisory Council of the California Youth Authority, believes that many disadvantaged parents are unable to adequately instill ethics and moral values in their children. "Not that they don't love their kids or want the best for them, but it's almost a full-time job just to keep their own lives together."
Wallace pins more hope on the conflict resolution classes taught in many elementary schools.
The classes fall into two basic types: one uses role-playing to help children resolve disputes in a nonviolent way; the other teaches social skills such as responsibility, respect for others and sensitivity. Some programs are teaching the same skills to teachers and parents.
In the 10-session program developed by Prothrow-Stith and published by the Education Development Center, children are taught about the various forms of violence in the world, that anger is normal and that unhealthy anger can be controlled.
They are encouraged to express what might be good about a violent response (it relieves tension, people won't bother you, you get a reputation) and what is not (you might get killed or end up killing somebody). The children are asked: Is this really what you want to do?
They might role-play alternative solutions such as ignoring their nemesis, walking away, using humor, apologizing or giving the other person a face-saving way out.
One unexpected result of some classes was that teachers were shocked by what their students revealed about the violence in their homes. "Teachers are not ready to address that. They don't know how in many cases," Wilson-Brewer said.
"If we're expecting them to open up the issue with students, we also have to prepare them to do it."
In addition to learning how to resolve conflicts, she said, "(students) have to feel there's reason to resolve conflicts. Some are not afraid to die. They have this sort of hopelessness. We don't offer them any promise for the future."
At Miramonte, the Teens on Target members, who use the curriculum, could see violence prevention is an uphill battle.
Among about 20 sixth-graders, 15 said they had held a gun; 11 knew where they could get one if they were in trouble; almost all knew someone who had been shot; and seven knew younger kids who had been shot.
Asking questions with politely raised hands, the students said they were afraid--of their own relatives, of bullets flying through their homes, of the gangs that will try to jump them next year in seventh grade.
Told to try walking away, one girl said walking away could cause more problems than fighting.
One boy broke down in tears, telling coordinator Fidel Valenzuela he had nowhere to turn to talk about his father's drug problem. Valenzuela penciled the boy's phone number on a scrap of paper.
Because the major social problems associated with violence often seem so daunting, some people are working on smaller pieces of the puzzle.
Media violence, for instance, is something "we can do something about," said Leonard Eron, chair of the American Psychological Assn.'s Commission on Youth Violence. "What can we do about poverty? The lack of opportunity? Those are big macro-social problems."
Eron will be among the experts gathered in Los Angeles on Aug. 2 for an industrywide meeting on television and video violence.
After years of complaining, anti-violence advocates say the climate is improving for their efforts. As a result of congressional hearings this spring, the ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox networks adopted parental advisory labels for television programs. Some have complained the move is nothing more than a sham, and that violence in movies and videos is far more intense. But others are more optimistic than ever.
"You have to see how far they've come," said Marcy Kelly, president of Mediascope, a Los Angeles-based group working for more responsible presentations of violence in feature films and TV. "Until these hearings (the networks) never acknowledged there was a relationship between violence on the screen and aggression in society. And then to go a step further. . . . I'm not saying it's the perfect answer, but it's a beginning."
Though it has never been tested, Eron believes reducing levels of violence in TV will reduce aggression, just as introducing it has been shown to raise aggression.
Considering the increased public awareness and influx of money from foundations, many have not given up hope on stemming the current spiraling nature of youth violence.
But observers are guardedly optimistic about what can be accomplished. Said the CYA's Walt Jones: "People who expect we will have the ability to turn people completely around and live desirable lives are setting their expectations too high. If we lower our expectations, to some comfortable reduction of those negative things, then (some success) may be achievable."
What researchers do know is just as there is no single cause of violence, there is no single solution. Parents and the larger community need to work together to produce "multiple messages in multiple settings," said Jim Mercy, an epidemiologist in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We need to have different types of interventions that reinforce values and messages that support nonviolence."
Prothrow-Stith tells a story to show how all segments of society must join to prevent violence. It concerns a father whose son, an athlete preparing to go to college, was shot and killed by another teen-ager. A reporter noted that the father had done everything right in raising the son, sending him to a safe school, and still his son was dead. "The father said, 'I didn't do everything right. I took care of my son. I forgot to take care of the other children.' "