Ebony M. Boyd
A growing number of adolescents have been victims of physical, sexual, mental, verbal, and emotional abuse. Statistics show that there has been a decline in acts of serious youth violence, but evidence shows that these numbers remain stable and are of serious national concern. Not only have adolescents been victims of violence, but many have witnessed violent incidents, as well. In order to prevent this violence from occurring, we must have a clear and concise understanding of the scope of the problem. The Oxford English dictionary (2nd edition) defines an adolescent as a person in the age of adolescence; a youth between childhood and manhood. Likewise, adolescence is defined as the process or condition of growing up; the period which extends from childhood to manhood or womanhood; ordinarily considered as extending from 14 to 25 in males, and from 12 to 21 in females. The Oxford English dictionary defines violence as the exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on, or cause damage to, persons or property; treatment or usage tending to cause bodily injury or forcibly interfering with personal freedom.
This chapter looks to identify some of the aspects that surround adolescent violence in the United States, as well as the associated costs. The chapter will then identify some of the myths pertaining to violence among youth, developmental aspects of violence, and some of the associated risk behaviors. Next, the chapter will examine violence in school, followed by a look into the juvenile justice system. The chapter will conclude by identifying some of the prevention and intervention programs that are in place, and additional ways in which adolescent violence can be prevented. (The terms adolescent, youth, and teen will be used interchangeably throughout the chapter)
Adolescent violence in the United States
Youth violence in the United States has been in decline from 1994 to 1999.1 Even though this may sound encouraging, the numbers remain stable and should still be of great concern. Two of the primary sources used to provide statistics about crime in the United States are the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS).2 The UCR is produced each year by the FBI and compiles crime and arrest figures from local jurisdictions through the country. The crimes reported by the UCR are homicide, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson.
Murder and nonnegligent manslaughter - The willful (nonnegligent) killing of one human being by another, Deaths caused by negligence, attempts to kill, assaults to kill, suicides, and accidental deaths are excluded. Justifiable homicides are classified separately.
Forcible rape - The carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will. Rapes by force and attempts or assaults to rape regardless of the age of the victim are included. Statutory offenses (no force used — victim under age of consent) are excluded.
Aggravated assault - An unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury. This type of assault usually is accompanied by the use of a weapon or by means likely to produce death or great bodily harm. Simple assaults are excluded.
Larceny-theft (except motor vehicle theft) - The unlawful taking, carrying, leading, or riding away of property from the possession or constructive possession of another. Examples are thefts of bicycles or automobile accessories, shoplifting, pocket-picking, or the stealing of any property or article which is not taken by force and violence or by fraud. Attempted larcenies are included. Embezzlement, confidence games, forgery, worthless checks, etc., are excluded.
Motor vehicle theft - The theft or attempted theft of a motor vehicle. A motor vehicle is self-propelled and runs on the surface and not on rails. Motorboats, construction equipment, airplanes, and farming equipment are specifically excluded from this category.
Not all crimes appear in the Uniform Crime Report because not all jurisdictions give data to the FBI, and some crimes are never reported to the police. The National Crime Victimization Survey fills in those gaps. It collects detailed information on the frequency and nature of the crimes of rape, sexual assault, personal robbery, aggravated and simple assault, household burglary, theft, and motor vehicle theft. It does not measure homicide or commercial crimes (such as burglaries of stores), and crimes against children under the age of twelve. Two times a year, the U.S. Census Bureau interviews household members in a nationally representative sample of approximately 45,000 households (about 80,000 people). About 160,000 interviews of persons age 12 or older are conducted annually. The NCVS collects information on crimes suffered by individuals and households, whether or not those crimes were reported to law enforcement. Then, it estimates the proportion of each crime type reported to law enforcement, and summarizes the reasons that victims give for reporting or not reporting. Yet another approach to measuring adolescent violence is with self-reports. Self-reports consist of surveys given to teens that ask about violent acts they have committed or have been victims of during a certain time period. These reports can offer the best way to measure violence that never reached the justice system. Self-reports can also answer questions about the type of violent acts teens commit, differences in sex and race, how the patterns arise, and how long they last.
In 2001, U.S. residents age 12 or older experienced approximately 24.2 million crimes, according to findings from the National Crime Victimization Survey. 4 Of these crimes, 76% (18.3 million) were property crimes, 24% (5.7 million) were crimes of violence, and 2% were personal thefts.
In 1999, data shows that 1,763 adolescents under the age of 18 were arrested for homicide. This was a decline from 4,330 in 1993, the year at which adolescent homicide peaked. But, youth involvement in violent behavior and offenses has not declined since the mid 1990’s. The rates of arrest for aggravated assault remain seventy percent higher than in the year 1983. Data shows that in 1997, 1,700 adolescents under the age of 18 were implicated in 1,400 murders. In 1999, 82% of youth homicide victims age 15 to 19 were killed with firearms. For African Americans in the same age group, firearm-related homicide is the leading cause of death.5
According to the Illinois Center for Violence Prevention (1998), violence costs the United States about $425 billion in direct and indirect costs every year.6 In regards to adolescents, violence in the United States is estimated at $6 billion each year in medical costs alone. Additional costs include fees incurred for criminal processing, security, public programs that are needed for prevention and treatment, property damage, and overall lost productivity. The monetary costs here total about $160 billion each year. Aside from the monetary costs associated with youth violence, one must figure in the costs of potential life lost, material lost, as well as physical and psychological trauma. In order to reduce these costs, prevention of violent crimes is imperative. Despite these numbers, United States policy focuses on extremely violent crimes and incarceration for theses acts. Unfortunately, the focus has not been directed towards intervention and prevention. The federal spending of school-based crimes, violence, and drug prevention is small, as compared to the spending on crime and drug control strategies. Such strategies include policing and prison construction. However, it has been observed that some intervention and prevention programs costs less than focuses of violent crimes and incarceration.
Myths about violence in adolescents
There are many myths surrounding youth violence. The false notions are dangerous and can potentially obscure the need for prevention or informed policy. These myths also have the ability to cause public fear and lead to inappropriate or misguided policies that result in inefficient use.7 Some of the myths about adolescent violence include:
As noted previously, even though there is a reduction, the problem is far from over.
Displaying uncontrolled behavior or even being diagnosed with conduct disorder does not predisposition a child as becoming a violent adolescent or adult. In fact, a majority of children with behavioral disorders do not become violent adolescents.
Data has shown that race and ethnicity has no bearing on the proportion of groups that participate in nonfatal violent behavior. However, there are differences in homicide rates, and the timing and continuity of violence over life.
Violence is a learned behavior. Moreover, there is not gene for being violent. If children witness violence, they are more prone to be aggressive or become involved in violent acts.
5. Child abuse and neglect eventually leads to violent behavior.
Abuse and neglect are weak predictors of violence. Most children abused or neglected won’t become offenders of adolescent violence.
6. Nothing works with respect to trying to treat or prevent violent behavior.
There have been a number or prevention and intervention programs identified that
The world is extremely different today for adolescents, in comparison to their parents or grandparents. Problems that adolescents experience are the products of multiple, and sometimes very complex causes. Data shows that in 1998, more than 70 million people in the United States were under the age 18.8 This figure represents 26% of the total resident population. Since 1984, when the adolescent population fell to its lowest level, we have seen a gradual increase that is projected to continue. In 1997, one-fifth of all adolescents lived below poverty. During this time, the poverty threshold for a family of four was $16, 400. So, even though adolescents represented 26% of the population, they were 40% of all people living below poverty. The poverty rates for African Americans and Hispanics was 37%, white was 16%, and Asian was 20%.
Developmental aspects of violence
Research shows that delinquency is the result of a number of issues, which ultimately begins with the family. The Oxford English Dictionary defines delinquency as failure in or neglect of duty; more generally, violation of duty or right; the condition of being guilty. Weak-bonding, poor parenting and exposure to violence put children at risk for becoming violent later in life. Exposure to violence may cause youth to be afraid to go to sleep, fear of being left alone, or regression to earlier behavior, such as bed-wetting or baby talking. Consequently, concerns outside of the home surround the influence of peers. Some on the antisocial behaviors exhibited by adolescents include lying, bullying, truancy, starting fights, vandalism, theft, assault, rape, and homicide.9
Lying – To tell a false statement with intent to deceive; a criminal falsehood
Bullying – Personal intimidation; treat in an overbearing matter; to frighten into a certain course; bluster, use violent threats
Truancy – Act of laziness or idleness; especially a child who absents himself from school without leave; one who wanders from an appointed place or neglects his duty or business.
Vandalism – Ruthless destruction or spoiling of anything beautiful or venerable; in weakened sense, barbarous, ignorant, or inartistic treatment
(*these set of definitions were taken from the Oxford English Dictionary)
Research has identified two types of life course trajectories in relation to youth who progress to antisocial behavior. They include, life course persistent, which is a form of psychopathology, and adolescence limited, which is only seen in select social situations. Life course persistent persons begin antisocial behavior early in childhood and continue throughout adulthood, after their adolescence limited counterparts stop. Being able to distinguish between adolescents who exhibit these types of behaviors is a very useful tool for thinking about developmental knowledge and choosing the right intervention for antisocial youth.
Theories as to why adolescent violence occurs come from a variety of disciplines. The aim of these theories is to attempt to provide a better understanding of the behavior by showing how it is a result of a certain set of conditions and processes.10 In general, some theorists believed in the idea of determinism. Determinism says that the fact that an adolescent does or doesn’t become delinquent can be traced to some condition that we have failed to understand or see. Moreover, they feel that we have no choice in the matter, and everything we do is determined by who we are and what happens to us. On the flip side, there is the free will belief Free will says that we have the ability to choose our actions regardless of the pressure or forces that act upon them. The third belief is called soft determinism. Soft determinism says that some of our actions may be beyond our control because they are determined by our experiences and who we are, but we still have the ability to make choices in the areas most important in our life. Some theorists believe that violent adolescents possess genetic traits that distinguished them from non-violent adolescents. Similarly, a majority of our society believes that adolescent violence is the result of a lack of parental discipline. Others feel that delinquency is the result of the decline of religion. In addition, some believe that delinquents just don’t have any self-control which leads to not only crime, but occurrences of other less desirable acts such as excessive drinking, drug use, or gambling. Debates continue over whether there is a single explanation of adolescent violence or whether it is several signs that each requires its own explanation.
Violence Risk Factors
There are many risk factors that evolve as an adolescent matures in response to his or her family, friends, or environment. A general offense such as burglary or conviction of a crime usually occurs before age twelve.11 Adolescents who experiment with drugs, alcohol, or tobacco have been shown to display antisocial behavior and involvement in delinquent behaviors. Research indicates that there may be an occurrence of additional problem behaviors, or disorders among adolescents with behavioral problems. A major risk factor seen in males is aggression. Aggression, or “rough and tumble” play is denoted as disruptive behavior, verbal aggression, and aggression towards objects. Traditionally, males have been exposed to more violence and are more hyperactive than females. Unfortunately, society considers male aggression the norm, whereby many male role models are depicted as being violent. This aggression places the male in a position to select and develop friends, acquire fighting skills, as well as establish a place in the hierarchy of society. As a result, bullying develops when the aggression is a means to dominate, and as the male becomes more exposed to society the meaning and overall seriousness of aggression changes. Similarly, the most common co-occurring behavioral disorder seen in teens is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD is characterized by age-inappropriate behaviors such as impulsivity, hyperactivity, or inattention. It is often paired with early aggression and impairment in family, personal, and peer relationships.
Growing up in neighborhoods that are impoverished is also correlated with an increase in violence.12 Living in areas that are overrun with crime, drugs, poverty, and guns has been linked to causes of violent adolescent behavior. In addition, a lack of quality schools, role-models, positive community organizations and leaders, as well as safe and productive extra-curricular activities may lead to an increase in violent activities among teens. As a community grows powerless, so does its members. Possible results that could impact teens include increased disorder, crime, identity problems, and conflicts with others in the community.
Another risk that can be associated with violence is threats from adolescents.13 A threat, as defined by The Oxford English Dictionary is compulsion; vexation, torment; to try to influence (a person) by menaces, or to declare (usually conditionally) one's intention of inflicting injury upon. Even though many threats aren’t carried out, a percentage of them are. Threats by teens should be taken seriously when they involve hurting or killing themselves or someone else, running away, or destroying property. Furthermore, adolescents with a history of violent behavior are more prone to actually carrying out the threats. The presence of one of more of the following increases an adolescent’s risk of violent behavior when associated with threats:
Violence in Schools
School plays a central role in shaping the ideas, values, and norms of adolescents. However, many teens aren’t accepting of the standards set by school and the focus on higher learning. Statistics show that minority students lag behind white students, and their dropout rate is higher.14 Because school and education is such an integral part of adolescence, there is a definite link between school failure, social and academic goals, and delinquency. Studies show that in 1996, 65% of school-associated violent deaths were students, and 83% of school homicide or suicide victims were male. The Youth Behavior Survey (YRBS), a school-based survey designed to produce a national representation of students in the 9th -12th grade reported in 1999 that 35.7% of high school students reported being in a physical fight in the past 12 months, and17.3 % carried a weapon (gun, knife, or club) during the 30 days before the survey was administered.
The Juvenile Justice System
Once an adolescent is accused of a crime, the arresting officer may make the decision of whether to send the case into the juvenile system, or make a referral to another program.15 Most cases referred to the courts are handled informally, usually resulting in dismissal. In other situations, the delinquent may agree to other conditions such as drug counseling, school attendance, placement into a state institution (training school), or curfew. If these terms are not met, the case may go under prosecution. During this time, the delinquent may be held in a detention center until the hearing. Roughly 600,000 adolescents have been admitted to detention centers each year throughout the 1990’s. The average length of stay for an adolescent is 15 days, determined by the court schedules and availability of institutions after the hearing. Depending on the nature of the crime, or the delinquent’s prior history with the courts, a case may be transferred to criminal court. The death penalty is considered the final alternative in adolescent crime. The U.S. States Supreme Court has decided that execution of youths above the age of 15 is constitutional. An alternative to institutionalization is the idea of “boot camp.” Boot camp was founded in 1973 by a former marine, but not actively used until the 1980’s. There are a variety of boot camp programs and approaches, but the main element is military training and strict discipline. The camp is led by drill instructors who rule by dominance, harassment, and humiliation of the delinquents. In the camp, the delinquents are also taught education and therapy to aide in their harsh routines. They may also be taught social skills to help them readjust and function confidently in society.
Prevention and Intervention of Adolescent Violence
There is an overabundance of prevention programs in place that look at violence among adolescents and ways to help teens make informed decisions about their lives. Prevention can be divided into three parts: primary, secondary, and tertiary.16 Primary prevention is the ability to decrease the likelihood that adolescents in a program will initiate violent behavior, as compared to adolescents in a control group. Secondary prevention is applied selectively for adolescents at an increased risk of violence, and geared towards preventing the onset and risk for violence. Tertiary prevention is aimed at adolescents who have already preformed seriously violent acts. On the other hand, intervention is reducing the risk of violence acts among adolescents who display risk factors for violence, or the ability to prevent any further violence from occurring. These types of interventions are known also as secondary and tertiary prevention. It is very important to select the appropriate program geared towards the needs of the particular teen and his or her situation. In selecting the right program, look into the characteristics of the program and the youth served. Next, review what the goals and objectives of the program are to determine whether the program reaches out to your needs. If there are interventions in the community that work use those as a starting point for treatment. Possible settings for intervention programs include: schools, playgrounds, churches, youth centers, and homes. In the case of high risk youth, possible settings include: alternative schools, recreation centers, social service centers, and juvenile justice facilities. Practically every city has prevention and intervention programs in place. Listed below are several programs in place that have been found to work.
Life Skills Training (LST) programs
These programs are designed to prevent or decrease the use of tobacco, drugs, and alcohol. The program is targeted for middle and high school students. The program teaches self-management skills, social skills, and information related to drug use. Evaluations show that the program reduces the use of these substances, with an overall long term effect of decreased use of drugs and alcohol.
This program targets elementary, middle, and high school students. Group discussions can be held with students, or individual sessions can be held with teens who are identified as being a bully, or the victim of bullying. This program has been shown to decrease violent acts among teens such as burglary, theft, and truancy.
School Transitional Environment Program (STEP)
This program targets junior and high school students. It is aimed at reducing stress that can occur from changing schools and redefining the roles of the teachers. Adolescents are taught behavioral management skills that they can use to reduce school problems and absenteeism.
This program targets elementary school children. The aim is reduce physical and verbal aggression by promoting peace among adolescents in school. Counselors, teachers, and other trained professionals use various methods such as role-playing, and modeling to teach students how to interact with each other in a positive way.
Working Toward Peace
This program consists of two parts. The first part focuses on self-discipline, communication, problem-solving, responsibility, and building healthy relationships. The second part of the program reinforces the first part of the program with an emphasis on anger management, conflict resolution, and healthy alternatives.
Community Based Programs
Community based programs such as the Boys and Girls Club, and the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America have been shown to reduce adolescent violence. Reductions have been observed in drug trafficking, drug use, vandalism, burglary, and theft.
Programs for Parents and Teens
Programs for adolescents can also be beneficial when they are coupled with parent training. One example is Linking the Interests of Families and Teachers (LIFT). This program combines training for adolescents combined with parent training. The program focuses on encouraging positive social behavior coupled with parent groups that meet on a weekly basis. That portion of the program focuses on reducing antisocial behaviors, and involvement with drugs and alcohol.
These programs guide adults on how to implement safe and healthy practices in the home. Parents learn how to deal with their adolescent’s antisocial behavior and other violent practices.
This program involves home visitations, where nurses or other professionals go to the adolescent’s home and provide training, counseling, support, and continued monitoring. Home visits have shown decreases in long-term violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and other anti-social behaviors.
Juvenile Mentoring Organizations
These programs support one-to-one mentoring programs that are geared for youth at risk of failing or dropping out of school, or involvement in delinquent acts, such as gangs. An example of one such program is The Boyz-to-Men and Girls-to-Women (BMGW) program that provides education about conflict management, healthy decision-making, and counseling for teen parents.
Safe Kids/Safe Streets
This program has a number of goals. First it encourages the juvenile justice system to become more proactive in helping adolescents that have been abused or mistreated. Second, it strengthens management of child welfare systems and family services. Third, the program develops community strategies, events, and programs that are geared at reducing child abuse and neglect.
Drug and Alcohol Prevention Programs
These programs education youth about the danger associated with drug and alcohol use and abuse. Public advertising campaigns are being constructed throughout the country to combat underage drinking and drug use.
Striving Together to Achieve Rewarding Tomorrows (CASASTART)
This program was formerly known as the Children at Risk program. It focuses on targeting teens at risk who live in severely impoverished neighborhoods. The program has eight components. Each part targets a different area that focuses on risky behavior. The areas include: Community-enhanced policy enforcement, case management, juvenile justice intervention, family services, after school and summer activities for youth, educational services, mentoring programs, and incentives for participation in the programs. The programs have shown to have a positive affect on the acts of adolescents, with reductions seen in violent crime, substance abuse, and drug sales.
Families and Schools Together (FAST Track)
This program combines several strategies such as social skills training, home visitation, parent training, academic tutoring, and behavioral skills for appropriate behavior in school. The program identifies adolescents that display or act out violent behaviors and aims to prevent serious problems that could result. The program increases communication between schools, students, and homes. The effect is increased relationships with peers and adults, the development of social and problem-solving skills, decreased youth violence, and increased achievement in academics and family relationships.
The focus of family therapy is to reduce the dysfunctional components of the home, such as communication and interaction. An example is Functional Family Therapy (FFT), whereby issues are addressed based on the needs of the family. There are five phases of the therapy which include: motivation to change, behavior change, engagement to reduce early dropout, assessment of problems, and generalization (casework is used to ensure that new skills are being applied). The services are delivered in a multistep fashion by a variety of trained individuals such as probation officers, mental health officials, and trained counselors. The benefits of the therapy include treatment of conduct disorder, behavior disorder, and alcohol and drug abuse. Another example is Multisystemic Therapy (MST). This is an intensive family and community treatment that addresses several areas of antisocial behavior. The therapy targets families with teens in the juvenile system who are violent, abuse substances, and at risk of being institutionalized. Four types are services are offered. They are: strategic family therapy, behavioral parent training, as well as cognitive-behavioral therapy. Outcomes of the therapy include reductions in mental health problems, out-of-home placement, and serious violent crimes.
This is an alternative to incarceration, whereby adolescents with severe criminal behavior are supervised on an intensive basis by a foster family. The adolescent is observed at home, in school, and in the community. The foster family is supported by a treatment center that recruits and trains the adults on how to best assist the adolescent. The program also provides parent training to the biological families, helping to improve family interactions and decrease risk behavior. The adolescents receive behavior management and are actively involvement with case managers and community liaisons.
Intensive Protective Supervision Project
This is a program in the juvenile justice system that removes adolescents from institutions and provides them with intensive community supervision. It tailors services to the adolescent, as opposed to trying to fit the youth into a pre-selected program. This program has been shown to reduce the number of repeat offenses and arrests by youth during the following year of participation in the program.
Some additional information/resources about adolescent violence, youth risk behavior, and intervention programs can be found at:
The National Domestic Violence Hotline 24-hour emergency service – 1-800-799-SAFE
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)
The National Crime Prevention Council
Teen Violence, MEDLINEplus Health Information
National Academic Centers of Excellence on Youth Violence
National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center (NYVPRC)
The Center for Disease Control’s School Health Policies and Programs Study (SHPPS)
“Victimization in Never Just Child’s Play,” School Safety, 1996
Federal Justice Statistics Program (FJSP), Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)
Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS)
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
Administration for Children and Families
Youth Violence is a Public Health Issue
National Centers on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA)
Youth Crime Watch of America
1. National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center, http://www.safeyouth.org/home.htm
2. Satterthwaite, M. Juvenile Crime. Philadelphia: Chelsea House
Publishers, 1997 p.19
3. U.S. Department of Justice · Office of Justice Programs Bureau of Justice
4. U.S. Department of Justice · Office of Justice Programs Bureau of Justice Statistics http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/cvictgen.htm
5. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/ncipchm.htm
6. Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General, http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/youthviolence/
7. Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General, http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/youthviolence/
8. Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report, http://www.ncjrs.org/html/ojjdp/nationalreport99/toc.html
9. Child and Adolescent Violence Research at the NIMH, http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/violenceresfact.cfm
10. Binder, A, Geis, G, and Bruce, D. Juvenile Delinquency, Historical Cultural, and Legal Perspectives, 2nd Edition. Cincinnati: Anderson Publishing Company, 1997 p. 55-104
11. Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General,
12. Kim, H. Youth Violence. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1993 p. 71-72
13. Children’s Threats: When Are They Serious? American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, http://www.aacap.org/publications/factsfam/65.htm
14. Siegel, L. and Senna, J. Juvenile Delinquency, Theory, Practice, and Law, 4th Edition. St. Paul: West Publishing Company, 1981 p. 308-317
15. Binder, A, Geis, G, and Bruce, D. Juvenile Delinquency, Historical Cultural, and Legal Perspectives, 2nd Edition. Cincinnati: Anderson Publishing Company, 1997 p. 253-307.
16. Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General, http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/youthviolence/