Fight School Violence, Pinpoint Its Victims

Chicago schools set out to pinpoint (and protect) likely victims of violence

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Jimmy Fishbein for TIME

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The strategy seems to have worked for at least one participant. "Sunshine," as he was nicknamed by a program staffer, is a slight young man who seems engulfed by his baggy jeans and black leather coat. Identified last fall as a senior with an ultra-high risk of being shot, he ended up bonding with his mentor, spending as much as 30 hours a week with him, sharing meals, playing basketball, going online to learn about colleges and applying for financial aid. In June he became the first person in his family to graduate from high school. The program has made Sunshine feel safer. "Before, I was a fish out of water," he says. "I couldn't breathe. Now I have water around me, and I can breathe again."

The Odds of Victimization
Some of the links social scientists are making between how people behave and how likely they are to be victimized are in line with our everyday assumptions about crime: we know we're more likely to be mugged if we stay out late partying than if we have an early dinner and go to bed.

But some of the researchers' theories go further, tying the odds of victimization to certain personality traits. Christopher Schreck, an associate professor of criminal justice at the Rochester Institute of Technology, is at the vanguard of these studies. In a 2006 paper published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, he and his two co-authors analyzed data that tracked 3,500 young people starting when they were in the sixth and seventh grades. To measure the participants' level of self-control, they were asked to rate how strongly they agreed with a series of statements, such as "I act on the spur of the moment," "I do what brings me pleasure now" and "I am more concerned with the short run." The youths were also asked how many times they had experienced physical assault, robbery or theft.

Even after controlling for contact with delinquent peers, Schreck found that youths' level of self-control effectively predicted how often they were victimized—at the time of the first survey as well as a follow-up a year later. Low self-control, he concluded, predicts vulnerability to crime "potentially many years into the future."

Scientists are also searching for characteristics associated with another form of youth aggression: bullying. A 2008 study of nearly 2,000 children, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, found that the "trajectory of victimization" begins as early as age 2. The aggression of young children who are unable to peacefully negotiate solutions to social problems can lead to those kids' being bullied.

This helps explain why a number of antibullying initiatives are taking a victim-focused approach, teaching bullied kids how to handle social situations and manage their emotions more effectively. Such efforts have shown promise in reducing victimization, but a concern still lingers: Is it a good idea to label vulnerable young people, who are just developing their identities, as victims?

The answer is that the stigma is worth it if the intervention saves lives. But some youth-violence experts are skeptical. "My models can tell me where and when people are most likely to be victimized, but they can't tell me with certainty that it will be Joe and not John who will be the victim," says Harvard's Sampson. "Showering resources on a small number of individuals in the belief that they're the ones who will be victimized is unlikely to pay off."

One problem with the Chicago program is that "time does not stand still," Sampson says. "Older kids are aging out of the gangs. Younger kids are coming up. New alliances and enmities are being formed. By the time you draw up a list [of potential victims], it's going to be outdated."

Huberman disagrees. His victim-prediction model pinpointed more than 40% of the Chicago high school students who ended up getting shot during the past academic year. And he thinks providing mentoring and jobs for high-risk kids kept at least some of them from meeting the same fate.

As for the danger of labeling, it's relative. "None of our kids were remotely surprised to learn that they're potential victims," says Jonathan Moy, 32, a program manager for the Chicago schools' safety initiative. "They already know they're vulnerable. They're just glad someone else noticed."

This article originally appeared in the October 11, 2010 issue of TIME.

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