Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews

Volume 5

School-Based Strategies15


Most of the school violence prevention strategies noted in this section make intuitive sense when one looks at the research identifying specific unsafe locations in the school, or the theoretical premises of situational crime prevention, or the anecdotal evidence from teachers, principals, and security experts. However, there is actually very little research that unequivocally and conclusively shows a positive relation between these target-hardening strategies and a reduction in school crimes. The connections shown in this literature are usually modified from the original hypotheses, negative correlations are inexplicably found, or additional untested questions surface.

The research that tends to support these environmental strategies are case studies that make it difficult to generalize beyond the individual school. Although the participants may have more of a vested interest in making their strategies “work” for the researchers, there is still a lot that can be learned from these studies. This research reveals, as does most of the sound research showing positive effects, that there is more going on inside the school than the simple addition of surveillance cameras, dress codes, metal detectors or security personnel. Indeed, when these strategies of formal social control do show positive effects, it is mainly because they are working in tandem with methods that promote informal mechanisms of social control and “softer” forms of violence prevention.

Some studies that promote these environmental strategies make methodological and theoretical leaps by making recommendations for the prevention of school violence with no empirical test as to what actual effect these strategies may have. In other words, the study will explore the context of violence in schools and recommend the use of metal detectors to alleviate the situation without testing to see what effect metal detectors would have on the observed problem. This type of study tends to suffer from the same issues that plague the public and the media: there is an underlying assumption that these strategies “work,” while there exists very little research to support such conclusions.

I have included suspension, expulsion and zero tolerance with this annotated bibliography because they involve the physical removal of “unsafe students.” It is also commonly held that these policies work as deterrents (much like the other strategies in this bibliography) and researchers often link and/or conflate the idea of zero tolerance with environmental strategies of violence prevention in schools.

When reviewing this section, it is imperative to note that compared with violence prevention programs, there are very few rigorous experiments on these strategies. Skiba and Peterson (2000) only found four articles on these security measures being tested empirically with a well-designed study.

I did not review the areas of risk assessment and the criminal profiling of students and/or events of targeted violence because the literature is even sparser. It is largely empirically untested, and most researchers in this area strongly caution that violence cannot be formally or accurately predicted (Reddy et al., 2001). Furthermore, the number of actual instances of targeted school violence these strategies address is statistically quite rare, and exploring this area may promote a false conception of what type of violence it is imperative to prevent.

School Uniforms

There is very little methodologically sound research about the effect of school uniforms on student discipline, school climate and perceptions of safety. What research exists is often anecdotal or not peer-reviewed, or it contradicts the findings of previous research. The research that is more experimentally based is often criticized for lacking rigour and having an inability to completely isolate school uniform policies as the main variable in preventing school violence.

There is a high level of ambiguity in the evidence for or against uniforms, but the same evidence has also been interpreted in contradictory ways. The National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS) began in 1988 to test the effects of school uniforms on substance use, behavioural problems, attendance and academic achievement. Brunsma and Rockquemore (1998) found that uniforms have no direct effects on substance use, behavioural problems, or attendance. Brunsma and Rockquemore (1998) actually found a negative correlation between uniforms and student achievement, which they could not explain.

Using the same data, Bodine (2003) argues that the results were misinterpreted in the original article, which actually showed a positive correlation between uniforms and achievement. Bodine (2003) also questions their sample size of n=30 schools out of 4,171 involved in the NELS. However, Brunsma and Rockquemore (2003) subsequently reaffirm their initial findings using a different and more detailed methodology.

While Bodine’s (2003) point on the small sample size is a strong criticism, this exchange is interesting because neither paper points to any evidence that uniforms reduce violence or substance use. The thrust of Bodine’s (2003) paper is to counter how quickly the media took up claims that uniforms do not work, even though the evidence was problematic, but it does not provide counterevidence concerning school violence and substance use.

The Long Beach Longitudinal Study is another research project exploring the effects of dress codes on a variety of school variables. While some articles report that this study shows that the evidence for how uniforms are successful in reducing school violence, the more consistent finding is that uniforms cannot be isolated as the main factor in making schools safer (Stanley, 1996; Brunsma and Rockquemore, 2003).

A uniform policy is usually connected to increasing the perceptions of safety. In particular, staff working in a school with a uniform policy had better attitudes to their students (Gonzales, 2000). Stanley (1996) reached the similar conclusion that adults (teachers and parents) felt safer in a school with a uniform policy, although students themselves did not report feeling safer.

However, uniforms affect students and their perceptions quite differently. Wade and Stafford (2003) found that although teachers in schools with uniforms perceived significantly lower levels of gang presence, students did not report any differences. Furthermore, students in a school with a uniform policy reported significantly lower levels of self-perception and personal satisfaction. Thus, although dress codes may be a cheap strategy to consider in reducing school violence, despite mixed evidence on their effectiveness (Stanley, 1996), there are potentially detrimental effects on student’s self-perceptions that are less studied in the literature.

While dress codes are increasingly being implemented predominantly to combat school violence and increase school safety (Workman and Freeburg, 2006), there are no strong findings to support this belief that school administrators have. In fact, the only consistent finding, that school uniforms increase adults’ perceptions of school safety, may explain why dress codes are being continually adopted despite any sound evidence that uniform policies can be useful to prevent violence and make schools safer.

Uniform policies do seem to reduce the number of office referrals and expulsions (Bollinger, 2002; Stevenson, 1999), but this is not a consistent finding (Gonzales, 2000). Therefore, it is questionable whether the decrease in students’ contact with school authorities is because the uniform policy is improving student behaviour or whether this reduction is because students are not wearing clothes that would initiate contact with school authorities and disciplinary procedures.

Situational Crime Prevention [SCP] Strategies

In this section, metal detectors, surveillance cameras and other target-hardening strategies such as access restriction have all been grouped together. As with dress codes, there is a dearth of methodologically sound research on these areas. Studies explored in this constellation often suggest that there needs to be a multifaceted approach to preventing school violence rather than seeing these strategies as a panacea.

Astor et al.’s (2001) research represents a body of literature that examines sub-contexts of offending in schools that suggests targeting specific areas to reduce school violence and crime. Unsafe locations in the schools have been found to be “undefined spaces” that are characterized by overcrowding or a lack of adult supervision (such as hallways, cafeterias, bathrooms and parking lots). Interestingly, Astor et al. (2000) found that grade six students in middle schools (grades six to eight) versus grade six students in elementary schools (kindergarten to grade six) were more likely to perceive particular sub-contexts as risky. The researchers suggest that this result was related to the larger size of middle schools and the more isolating behaviour displayed by teachers. Although these findings appear to call for the use of SCP strategies (surveillance cameras, increased natural surveillance, metal detectors, controlled use of access points) the research is only identifying “unsafe” spaces in schools rather than testing what solutions would have a positive effect on safety or violence prevention.

Kingery et al. (1999) studied the risk factors associated with carrying weapons to school and they found the most important factors were: the student wished to victimize others; the student was actively involved in gangs; the student perceived the possibility of being victimized by other weapon-carrying students; and weapon-carrying behaviour by the student’s peers. However, we need to interrogate what the study actually shows, because we could be prone to making the conceptual leap that, because there are certain risk factors for bringing a gun to a school, the best reaction is that of target-hardening, when the actual effects of these strategies and technologies on students and violence prevention is not empirically tested by these researchers

SCP strategies do consistently show significant effects on the perceptions of safety. Garcia (2003) reports that the most common security technology schools used were cameras and recording devices, which were commonly seen as being a successful deterrent to violence. Less than half of schools with metal detectors believed they were effective in minimizing school violence (see also Heinen et al., 2006).

Some of these hardening strategies have been found to be detrimental to preventative efforts. For example, a positive relationship has been found between school uniforms and drug crimes, and also, having a closed-off campus and using metal detectors were associated with higher levels of interpersonal violence (Cheurprakobkit and Bartsch, 2005). While this particular study lacked controls and had a low response rate, the negative findings should modify the view that these SCP strategies can do no harm. Indeed, Mayer and Leone (1999) found that the higher a school was rated as a “secure building” by students, the more disorder there was in the school as measured by a subset of data collected from the 1995 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey of interviews with students aged 12 to 19 in the United States (n=6,947).

Goldberg et al. (2003) specifically studied the deterrent effects of mandatory random drug testing of high schools students (athletes and non-athletes) by matching a school with the drug-testing policy with a control school. The first assessment, after 30 days, found that athletes in the drug-testing school had lower rates of illicit drug use and lower prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs. However, risk factors associated with drug use, such as the norms of use, the belief in a lower risk from drugs, and poorer attitudes to the school increased in athletes who were subject to random testing. Although athletes did change their levels of drug use, their attitudes towards drug use and the school remained unaffected at best, and at worst, were opposite to the intended effects of drug screening.

Three of the more comprehensive evaluations of multiple SCP strategies have been included in this literature review. First, O’Neill and McGloin (2007) note a lack of rigorously carried out research on the efficacy of situational crime prevention (SCP) strategies in schools compared with the literature on school-based programs to prevent crime. This study aimed at being a “first step” in addressing this void by employing a cross-sectional, nationally representative study of schools (n=2,270 surveys) to determine what tactics work to lower violent or property school crime.

The SCP techniques O’Neil and McGloin (2007) examined included: controlling access by locking doors; locking/monitoring gates to the grounds; having a closed campus at lunch times; mandating clear book bags or banning bags; requiring photo identification; passing students through metal detectors; random metal detector checks; surveillance cameras; and requiring students to wear uniforms. Some SCP tactics were related to school crime: schools with locked doors, which did not close the campus for lunch and had fewer classroom changes, tended to report less property crime. Schools that had fewer classroom changes also tended to report less violent crime. However, there were few SCP strategies that emerged as significant. Indeed, one of the most robust predictors of school violence was the number of students in the school.

The authors caution that no one should conclude that SCP does not work in schools because, they claim, schools may not be properly employing SCP strategies. However, the hypothesis that schools may not have a “proper” understanding of SCP and its implementation is untested speculation. These authors appear to have been operating under a fallacy by initially assuming that SCP works to reduce and prevent school crime. Although their study showed otherwise, they did not conclusively prove that SCP does not work. However, researchers should be approaching the issue of SCP and school crime prevention under the assumption that it is a connection that needs to be proven.

Wilcox et al. (2006) explored the relationship between school crime and “defensible space” by surveying Grade 7 students (n=3682) and teachers (n=1351) through a systematic observation of schools with sampled teachers and students (n=65), and by analyzing school census data from those schools. Specifically, the researchers tested the ecological models for understanding school crime and measured the variables of territoriality (signs of ownership of areas), natural surveillance of areas, and the image of the school (whether it was messy). Few significant effects from the physical environment were found when looking at student self-reported victimization and perceived safety. Teacher-reported measures of crime were significantly lower where there was increased hallway territoriality, more natural surveillance provided by the exterior grounds, and less school disorder. The researchers suggested that working on these areas (for example, reducing physical disorder) could enhance informal social controls and diminish serious conduct, although this link is speculative and seems contrary to their findings.

Schreck et al. (2003) studied the risk factors for high school students to be victims of theft or violent crime using data from a previous survey. In doing so, they assessed how school guardianship (guards, metal detectors, locked doors, visitor sign-in, restroom limits, supervised hallways, locker checks, hall passes, drug education, and corporal punishment) impacted on an individual’s victimization within the school. They found that victimization risk levels were associated with the number of motivated offenders, students with delinquent characteristics, and the number of criminal associates. The researchers concluded that attempts to protect students using target-hardening tactics such as metal detectors and security guards were consistently unsuccessful at influencing risk of victimization. The one statistically significant finding related to environmental strategies was that schools with regular locker checks tended to experience more theft victimization.

All three of these more exhaustive experiments show the same results in that target-hardening strategies are not effective in preventing violence. However, two of the studies ultimately still argue for the use of specific SCP strategies because these strategies remain a salient way to solve problems of school violence. The literature on the broken windows thesis by Kelling and Coles (1996) seems to be quite similar. While there remains a lack of evidence that the strategy of policing broken windows in schools actually works to do anything but increase the perception that it is working, it is seen as something that governments and policy-makers have consistently believed to be sound policy.

Qualitative research and theoretically strong articles, which do not use the experimental method, have mainly argued that technologies and these “harder” strategies to prevent violence institutionalize mistrust and are negative motivational techniques which only serve to increase alienation and misbehaviour (Hyman and Perone, 1998; Kelly, 2003; Gallagher, 2007; Giroux, 2003; Casella, 2003). This body of literature notes that there is no empirical focus on what consequences these technologies have for young people growing up in environments of mistrust.

The more environmentally situated strategies, which are more promising for helping prevent school violence, seem to be related to a smaller school size (Neill and McGloin, 2007, Astor et al., 2000), and class size (Leung and Ferris, 2008) rather than to throwing security technologies at the problem of school violence. However, smaller schools do have consequences for lesbian, gay or bisexual students, who tend to report feeling safer in larger urban schools with lower than average safety ratings (Goodenow et al., 2006).

The Police, School Resource Officers, Security and Searches

For the purpose of this section Support Resource Officers (SROs), police officers, security guards and private police have all been grouped together. The role of the police in school suffers not only from a lack of sound studies but also from definitional issues about the role they should play in schools. There are many initiatives that police are involved with in schools that go beyond simply crime control, and their partnerships with schools are have focuses other than reacting to crime, but there is little evaluation on these multiple areas (Brown, 2006).

Similarly to the other research in this cluster of strategies, the role of SROs in schools provides the perception of a safer environment (Goggins et al., 1994; Travis and Coon, 2005). However, a survey of principals, teachers, and parents on perceptions also indicated that although SROs are perceived as a deterrent, they also contribute to the perception that a given school must be unsafe because they are present (Travis and Coon, 2005).

Clearly, another goal of having police officers posted in schools is to change the perceptions students have of the police. However, students see the police in schools as qualitatively different from the “regular” police force (Hopkins et al., 1992). Hopkins et al. (1992) evaluated the impact of school police officers on student views and attitudes about the police and student level of offending. The researchers compared the survey responses of students in high schools with a School Liaison Officer (SLO) to those without (total of n=1,245). Initially, attitudes to the police were marginally positive in schools with SLOs, but that finding diminished over the course of one year. The researchers found no evidence that the presence of SLOs slowed this decline of positive effects, or that the program affected student perceptions of the seriousness of offences or the likelihood of identification associated with crime. The researchers attribute this, in part, to the low reported rates of direct contact with the SLO. Students with an SLO thought positively of the SLO, but also saw them as distinct from the “police in general.” Their view of the SLO had a direct impact on their liking of the police in general, but the study concluded that police officers in schools only have limited positive effects.

Brady et al. (2007) studied the effects of a police-school partnership program in New York City called Project Impact. This study collected data from all New York City public high school reports (which contain demographic and student performance data and a small set of environmental indicators such as overcrowding, police incidents and student suspensions) one year before program implementation and one and a half years later. A set of schools that implemented the program (n=10) was matched based on student body size and racial composition with schools not involved in the intervention (n=10). These two groups were also compared with all schools not involved in the program (n=200) and all New York City high schools (n=210). Despite increased police presence, students enrolled at these “impact schools” experienced higher than normal student suspensions and lower attendance rates than did their comparison group or other New York City public schools. The major crime rate did go down in impact schools, but these schools experienced a significant increase in non-criminal police incidents. The comparison group was not perfectly matched, however, as researchers noted that schools that were part of the Project Impact initiative tended to be more crowded, received less funding, and were more racially isolated.

Also, similarly to research on SCP strategies, there are more qualitative and ethnographic articles that point to many problems with introducing police into schools, from minor problems like the role of the police usurping the traditional disciplinary role of teachers to more major problems such as abuse and mistreatment (Devine, 1995; Travis and Coon, 2005). There are also concerns over the rights of students being infringed upon and not safeguarded by courts (Beger, 2002).

Suspensions, Expulsions and Zero Tolerance

Most of the research done on suspensions, expulsions, and zero tolerance policies and their effects on a safe school climate are from the United States. This can be partially attributed to the longer existence of zero tolerance policies in the United States. In comparison with Canada, the data on suspensions, expulsions, and race, class, and other demographic factors is more accessible and systematic in the U.S. The studies generally point out the ineffectiveness of these disciplinary mechanisms and the disproportionate way they are often applied. However, the studies on the efficacy or inefficacy of these practices suffer from not being truly experimentally based or controlled studies.

Atkins et al. (2002) provides one of the few more rigorous studies of the effects of disciplinary referrals. They broke the analysis of disciplinary referrals into three groups across three time periods (fall, spring, winter). Group one never received a suspension or a detention (n=117). Group two (the fall group) received one or more suspensions in the fall but not in the spring (n=62). Group three (the fall and spring group) received one or more suspensions or detentions in the fall and the spring (n=75).

During the fall, group two and three both had similar rates of referrals. During the winter and spring, the second group had lower rates than group three and started to approach the rates of referrals for the members of group one, who had never been formally disciplined. This finding seems to suggest that punishment can have some beneficial effects.

However, these beneficial effects seem limited to a specific group of students. The students in group three had an increase in referrals across the year. Group three was also rated by teachers and peers as more aggressive, lacking social skills, and more hyperactive. Interestingly, group one and two were similar on these measurements.

Convincingly, the researchers argue that for group three (the fall and spring group), referrals operated as a reward for both students (who could leave the classroom) and teachers (who had disruptive students leave their classroom). More qualitatively, the researchers found that detentions and suspensions were often used without considering alternatives, and this all suggests that, rather than expanding the use of zero tolerance policies, more support needs to be given to schools to effectively use disciplinary strategies.

A consistent finding among the literature is that zero tolerance policies result in marginalizing students who may already exist at the margins, such as students with learning disabilities, below average grades (Morrison and D’Incau, 1997), or developmental disabilities such as autism, African-American students (Skiba et al. 2002; Verdugo, 2002; Dunbar and Villarruel, 2004; Noguera, 1995), poor students (Skiba and Peterson, 1999; Verdugo, 2002), Tamil and African-Canadian students in Ontario (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2003) and Latino students (Noguera, 1995).

Zero tolerance, like much of the other strategies reviewed in this section (which can be viewed as a cluster of zero tolerance strategies in general) (Verdugo, 2002), can be counterproductive, inhibit learning, and actually create an environment of mistrust and resistance (Noguera, 1995; Giroux, 2003). Most offences that result in a suspension are not ones that actually threaten school safety (Skiba and Peterson, 1999; Skiba et al., 2002), suggesting that these policies may indeed be doing something other than helping to curb violence.

Zero tolerance policies are supposed to operate in a very cut and dried way, with minimal room for discretion and disparity. However, it is reported that there are still wide variations in disciplinary decisions found in zero tolerance regimes (Dunbar and Villarruel, 2004). This suggests that these policies still leave decision-makers with high levels of discretion, even though zero tolerance leaves the impression that they eliminate “grey areas.”

Prevention Programs and “Soft” Techniques

There are different ways to categorize the various school-based violence prevention programs. I have called these strategies “soft techniques” because they can be contrasted with the target-hardening approaches reviewed above. As is the case with most of the literature on violence prevention in schools, there is much research that still needs to be conducted.

There are also some notable limitations in regard to the research and school-based violence prevention programs drawn on from this section:

  1. Most studies are conducted on programs created by the very researchers studying them, which leaves open a possibility that they may only report successful results. There are few programs that are studied by outside researchers (Wilson et al., 2003; Wilson and Lipsey, 2007). Gorman and Conde (2007) studied “conflict of interest” in school-based drug prevention programs labelled as “model” by the National Registry of Effective and Promising Programs (NREPP). These researchers argue that there is not enough separation between program developer and program evaluator, which creates a higher potential for a conflict of interest. Indeed, Petrosino and Soydan (2005) found, while studying criminal justice programs, that when a program developer is involved in the evaluation, the results are more likely to be positive than when conducted independently. Furthermore, the composition of the “expert panel” needs to be scrutinized, because Weiss et al. (2008) found that, for United States Department of Education, some members of this panel were program developers. Although these panellists did not make decisions on their own program, they still were involved in making decisions about other programs.
  2. Research in this area may lend itself to a selection bias whereby only successes are published in peer-reviewed journals and studies reporting non-significant effects are not consistently reported (Ferguson et al., 2007). When this is factored in, Ferguson et al. (2007) have argued, although programs targeted at at-risk youth fare slightly better, anti-bullying programs actually produce little effect on students who participate in the interventions.
  3. The programs considered “model” and “promising” by the Blueprints initiative do not conform to the same rigorous standards as non-school-based violence prevention interventions do. This is mainly because a true experimental design is logistically difficult to implement in a school setting. Weiss et al. (2008) have suggested that comparisons are not drawn with a true control group, but rather with a “sub-group” within the sample (such as high-risk compared with low-risk groups).
  4. The programs that are model or promising programs also require only one successful replication of the results of the initial research. The lower threshold is driven, as the Blueprints initiative states, by the state of research in this area and is not desirable. The more generalized issue is that there is relatively sparse research on school-based violence prevention programs that is of a very high calibre, and very few long-term follow-ups are conducted beyond two years (Weiss et al., 2008).
  5. There have been similar flaws identified in the United States Department of Education system of rating school-based interventions. It has been argued that the highest level given in this rating system, “exemplary,” allows programs that have not been proven to be effective to receive positive rankings, and also, once programs are elevated to this status, there are no further rigorously conducted evaluations (Gorman, 2002). This is a potential concern to keep in mind when looking at the Blueprints programs.

These programs should not be necessarily viewed as “enough” for a strategy of violence prevention. This methodological issue forces more thought into which violence prevention initiative could work in a particular school (and community) and also encourages constant evaluation of violence prevention programs once they are implemented in practice.

Before reviewing some of the specific programs labelled as “model” or “promising,” it is useful to provide a synopsis of some meta-analyses of school prevention programs. These meta-analyses provide a method of picking out some of the characteristics that successful programs share. I have also included reviews of the literature on school violence prevention, and although these do not have as rigorous a methodology as the meta-analyses do, they are also effective at drawing out some key characteristics of successful programs.

Wilson et al.’s (2003) original meta-analysis (subsequently updated) included 221 studies. The researchers continually point out that the majority of evaluations of school-based intervention programs consists of demonstration programs set up by the researcher, predominantly to determine the efficacy of the programs under experimental conditions. There are very few school-based initiatives they term “routine”; that is, implemented in schools on an ongoing basis and studied by the school or outside researchers. The purpose of this meta-analysis was to distinguish research-oriented demonstration programs (programs that are implemented mainly to be researched) from practice-oriented programs to assess effectiveness of intervention programs that are used on a regular basis in schools. A second purpose was to examine changes in aggressive behaviour over time periods as covered by the studies of school-based intervention programs. It also focused on changes in aggressive behaviour exclusive of other changes in attitudes and skills.

The researchers selected studies (n=221) that used an experimental or quasi-experimental design, with one or more control conditions that had pre-and post-test measures, or studies with a straight pre/post-test design. Most studies were conducted on demonstration programs, and the few studies on routine programs showed much smaller effects. There is little research on programs as they are actually implemented by schools. The effect of successful interventions was to reduce levels of aggression that were already present rather than to prevent potential increases in aggression. Therefore, these programs are most successful where aggression levels are already high (such as in higher-risk youth). Program effects did not vary with age, gender or ethnicity of samples. When the mean intervention effect sizes were adjusted for different types of programs (i.e., social competence training, behavioural and counselling approaches, academic programs, or peer mediation), the differences between effectiveness of strategies was small. This suggests that regardless of the type of school intervention used in violence prevention, interventions are more effective when they are well-implemented, intense, use one-on-one formats and are teacher-administered.

Wilson and Lipsey (2007) found in their meta-analysis of 249 experimental and quasi-experimental studies that the most effective (and also most popular) were universal programs for all students in a school or a classroom. Targeted programs for a selected population of children (such as “at-risk” students) were most effective when programs were outside of their regular classrooms.

Since cognitive programs were the main orientation of the majority of the universal programs, it is difficult to decipher whether positive effects arose from the treatment modality (i.e., the cognitive thrust of the program) or the service format (i.e., universal format).

The researchers also state that schools would benefit most in violence prevention by focusing on the ease of implementing a given program and on the quality of the program once it is in place. Surprisingly, programs that were comprehensive (defined by them as either having a distinct intervention element and/or a mix of intervention formats) were found to be ineffective. The researchers are not clear why this is the case, but a specific program targeting a slice of prevention may be more useful than the sum of these programs. However, this finding needs further research and replication.

Hahn et al. (2007) presented a review of the literature that assessed the effectiveness of universal school-based programs in preventing aggressive behaviour and violence among children of preschool and school age. The programs reviewed must have had the objective of reducing violence or aggression. The researchers evaluated school programs that taught students about the problem of violence and its prevention or skills to reduce violence (such as emotional self-awareness, emotional control, self-esteem, positive social skills, social problem-solving, conflict resolution and team work). The number of studies of quality reviewed and the consistency of the effect and effect size across all grades is evidence that universal school-based programs are associated with decreases in violence-related outcomes.

Vreeman and Carrol (2007) conducted a meta-analysis of school-based anti-bullying interventions ranging from primary to senior school levels and including international research. While each of 26 studies was rigorously designed and evaluated at the individual level, little consensus can be reached through an aggregate analysis. Only four of 10 curriculum studies (i.e., class discussions, modules) showed a decrease in bullying, while three of these still showed an increase in some smaller sub-populations. Seven out of 10 multidisciplinary whole-school interventions (i.e., a combination of school-wide rules or sanctions, teacher training, conflict resolution training, individual counselling) created a reduction in bullying behaviours. Among the remaining six studies (behavioural skills training, an increase in social workers, or student-adult mentoring), the more personal and intense interventions were most likely to reduce bullying. The authors argue that the sources of bullying behaviour are multiple and diverse; the interventions that are most successful will be the ones that utilize the wider strategies, such as whole-school techniques. Curriculum interventions are tempting due to their low cost and small commitment of resources, but their single focus should not be expected to provide dramatic results.

Molina et al. (2005) reviewed the reports of studies of seven effective elementary school-based secondary prevention programs for youth violence. To be included in the sample, the study had to: 1) use an experimental research design with random assignment to control experimental conditions; 2) have aggressive and hyperactive behaviours as outcome measures; 3) specify that sample students needed to be in elementary school; 4) examine an intervention designed for “at-risk” students; 5) have United States elementary schools as study sites; 6) be conducted during school time; 7) exclude self-directed violence from the results; and 8) be published no earlier than 1990. The preventive interventions that were tested included attributional retraining, social skills training, cognitive-behavioural therapy, peer coping skills, and child, parent, and teacher training for low-income students at risk for serious behavioural disorders. Sample sizes of the studies (n=7) varied from 52 to 453 subjects and only two had less than 100 subjects. Five of the studies reported beneficial results and two reported mixed results. The programs that showed the more promising results were ones that used cognitive-behavioural interventions and social skills training on identified aggressive or at-risk students. The most efficacious interventions were: 1) attributional retraining, a cognitive program that enhances the ability to detect other people’s intentions; 2) social skills training that had role-playing, modelling and positive reinforcement; 3) peer coping skills that promoted pro-social coping and information exchange; and 4) cognitive-behavioural training that had positive social skills training and more adaptive problem-solving skills.

The purpose of Mytton et al.’s (2002) study was to conduct a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized and controlled experiments of violence prevention initiatives in the school. Studies were also selected that used youth at risk for aggressive behaviour as its target population. The researchers identified 44 trials, but none reported data on violent injuries. The researchers’ analysis suggested that there was a greater effectiveness of violence prevention in older students, and when programs were administered to mixed-sex groups rather than to male students solely. The authors conclude that school-based violence prevention programs may reduce violent and aggressive behaviour in students who already exhibit the behaviour. They also point out that many of the reviewed trials did not provide data for relevant outcomes that were known to be measured, suggesting a bias towards positive results and a need for a large-scale systematic study.

Gottfredson et al. (2002) analyzed 178 studies on prevention in schools. The group of studies they analyzed had used a comparison group evaluation method and also included non-equivalent research designs. They organized their study around program types rather than developmental levels by grouping the studies into those focused on altering school or classroom environments and those focused on the individual. Environmental strategies include interventions to change the decision-making processes of authority figures, school-wide efforts to define or redefine norms for appropriate behaviour, using instructional methods to increase student engagement in the learning process and therefore increase bonds to the schools, and regrouping students, for instance by reorganizing classes to create smaller units. The cluster of interventions that focused on changing behaviours and teaching skills or providing knowledge to students appeared to be more successful. However, the definitions the researchers used to group violence prevention programs has a large degree of overlap, as 94 per cent of the reviewed studies contained multiple components and fit in more than one cluster. The researchers found that interventions geared to environmental factors were somewhat more effective than individually focused interventions to reduce effects of crime and substance abuse.

The most effective strategies across all outcomes Gottfredson et al. (2002) measured (substance abuse, crime, anti-social behaviour or truancy) were interventions that established norms and expectations for behaviour, school and discipline management interventions, and instructional programs that used cognitive-behavioural methods to teach social competency skills. What they found did not work were instructional programs that did not use cognitive-behavioural techniques, counselling, social work and other therapeutic interventions, and recreation and leisure programs.

Wright et al. (2007) tested the effectiveness of a multi-component program, which combined various interventions (cooperative learning, classroom management and peer-oriented strategies) to reduce anti-social behaviour in adolescents. The study was carried in two school boards in Ontario and used a two-group comparison before-and-after design. Grade nine students from two schools were control schools and grade nine students from two other schools were assigned the intervention. Data was derived from questionnaires (n=978 at the first interval and n=358 for the follow-up questionnaire from all schools). The multi-component model of interventions had small and similar effects on high- and low-risk groups. Both groups had improved student perceptions of classroom interactions, friends’ deviance, and perceptions of fairness in school rules. There were small changes in student perception of the teacher, truancy, suspensions, behavioural problems, and conduct disorder. Interestingly, positive effects were slightly more pronounced in the low-risk groups, contrary to much previous research (Greenwood, 2006; Reid et al., 1999; Ngwe, 2004; Segawa, 2005; Flannery et al., 2003, Vazsonyi et al., 2004, Farrell et al., 2001).

Sprott (2004), while not assessing a particular program, has argued that emotionally supportive classrooms when children were 10 to 13 years old was related to lower rates of violence when the students were 12 to 15 years old, which would suggest that the actual program implemented may be of secondary importance, provided that emotional supports are strong in the classroom.

Sprott et al. (2005) used longitudinal survey data from the Canadian National Longitudinal Study of Children and Youth to examine the protective effects of a school bond on violent and non-violent delinquency across a spectrum of risk factors (n=22,831 children aged 0 to 11). While the researchers were not assessing specific programs and interventions, they found that a strong school bond was a protective factor for children at risk for engaging in delinquent activity and violence two years later. A strong bond also helped protect children with more environmental risks from violent and non-violent offending, and it protected against delinquent peers for non-violent offending only.

The Blueprints Ranking System16

The Blueprints for Violence Prevention program is one of the more comprehensive databases of effective violence prevention programs. Based in the Center for Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado, its main purpose has been to identify effective interventions to reduce violence, delinquency and substance use.

Blueprints for Violence Prevention is also useful because it delineates fairly rigorous criteria for intervention programs to be rated as either promising or model programs. For school-based violence prevention the programs must meet the following criteria:

  1. Evidence of a deterrent effect with a strong research design. The project has a lower threshold for school-based violence prevention programs. The research must be experimental or quasi-experimental in design. While they prefer multiple schools to be a part of the study, experiments with a few schools will be considered provided that there is more than one school in each of the experimental conditions. School-based programs must also show a consistency of effects across replications and with multiple measures from a variety of sources showing at least moderate effects.
  2. Sustained effects. Successful programs must be able to show long-term effects beyond the treatment phase. However, Blueprints does consider programs as promising if there has not been enough time to explore such effects.
  3. Multiple site replications with diverse populations and across diverse settings are necessary to be considered a model program.
  4. To be considered a model program the intervention must also conform to two additional criteria. First, the research must have conducted an analysis of mediating factors. This strengthens the claims that the program was responsible for the change. Second, a cost-benefit analysis must weigh whether the costs of the program outweigh the benefits.

Blueprints Model Programs

The Incredible Years: Parents, Teachers and Children’s Training Series

The program is a selected prevention program, as it targets children age two to 10 at risk for conduct problems by providing a set of three comprehensive curricula for parents, teachers and children. The three areas worked upon are the parent, the teacher and the child. For the children component, it involves either a “treatment version” for small groups of children exhibiting conduct issues or a “prevention version” delivered to the entire classroom two or three times a week (Jones et al., 2007; Reid and Hammond, 2003; Reid and Webster-Stratton, 2001; Webster-Stratton et al., 2001; Axberg et al., 2007).

The program addresses multiple risk factors known to be related to conduct disorders in children. Trained facilitators use videotaped scenes to promote discussion and discuss problem-solving solutions for all three training targets (parents, teachers and children). The parent series has three sub-components: Basic focuses on skills to promote children’s social competence. Advance improves parental interpersonal skills. The School component emphasizes skills to enhance children’s academic skills. The teacher component emphasizes strong classroom management techniques and how to teach empathy and problem-solving. The children component strengthens empathy, anger management, perspective-taking and other interpersonal skills.

Randomized evaluations with control groups for the parent component have shown significant increases in the positive affect of parents; parents tended to replace harsh disciplinary sanctions with non-violent discipline and increased monitoring; there was increased parental self-confidence and lower levels of parental depression; and there was an increase in positive family communications and reduced conduct problems in children’s interactions with parents.

For teachers, they have shown an increase in the use of praise and encouragement and a reduction in harsh discipline; an increase in children’s positive affect and cooperation with teachers; an increase of students’ engagement with school; and reductions in peer aggression in the classroom.

For the children series, there has been an increase in children’s appropriate cognitive problem-solving strategies; more pro-social conflict resolution used with peers; and a reduction in conduct problems at home and in the school.

Midwestern Prevention Project (MPP)

This is a comprehensive community-based program for drug prevention whose central component is the school. MPP attempts to aid early adolescent students in dealing with the social pressures of drug use and train students how to avoid drug situations and drug use. The school component utilizes social learning techniques like role-playing and homework assignments designed to include the family. A parent-principal committee is established to review school drug policies and enhance parent-child communication skills. These school components are reinforced with a well-coordinated community-wide effort, such as mass media programming, parent education, community organization training, and local policy changes regarding tobacco. The different components are introduced at a rate of one per year, with the media component going throughout. All parts include regular meetings of program deliverers, such as community organization leaders and principals, to review and refine the program (Pentz et al., 1998).

MPP has been found to achieve a 40 per cent reduction in daily smoking, with similar but smaller reductions in marijuana and alcohol use (maintained through grade 12). Effects on daily smoking, marijuana use and the use of certain hard drugs have been shown to exist through age 23. There is also an increase in parent-child communications about drug use. MPP has also facilitated development of prevention programs among other community leaders and organizations.

Olweus Bullying Prevention Program

This is a universal intervention with additional targeted interventions for youth identified as bullies or victims of bullying. Questionnaires are distributed to assess the prevalence and nature of bullying in schools. A conference is set up, along with a committee, to further discuss bullying and plan intervention strategies. Identified areas of bullying are targeted with increased staff supervision. Students are involved in the classroom establishment and enforcement of rules against bullying, with regular meetings to discuss bullying. Students who may be bullies, victims of bullying, and parents engage in more focused discussions with teachers and/or counsellors.

The program reports a reduction in a reduction of reports of bullying and victimization. There is a reduction in reports of general anti-social behaviour and an increase in reports of a school climate of pro-social attitudes to the school and school-work (Olweus et al., 1999).

Bauer et al. (2007) reported mixed results on this program in a non-randomized sample of Seattle schools. The researchers found no difference between Olweus and non-Olweus schools in victimization reports or in attitudes about student intervention when the population of students was aggregated. However, when the sample was broken down by race/ethnicity and grade, the evaluators did find some positive effects. For example, there was a decrease in victimization reported by white students. Bauer et al. (2007) suggest that Olweus was developed in a homogenous Norwegian environment, so additional components of racial identity, racial tolerance and sensitivity may need to be included in the program at the local school level to bolster effectiveness in a multi-ethnic society. They also note that it is difficult to compare all the cross-national studies because of different methodologies employed.

Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS)

This is a universal prevention program designed to be administered over multiple years from kindergarten to grade five. PATHS is a classroom-based program for all elementary students, which seeks to enhance social and emotional abilities and to reduce aggression and conduct problems while increasing the educational experience in the classroom (Greenberg et al., 1998; Greenberg et al., 1995; Domitrovich et al., 2007; Curtis and Norgate, 2007).

The curriculum is taught three times a week for about 30 minutes a day. Students are taught emotional literacy, self-control, social competence, pro-social peer relations and problem-solving skills through developmentally appropriate lessons. Students learn to identify their own feelings, express, assess, and manage their emotions, control impulses, reduce stress, self-talk, and other interpersonal skills. This program has been tested and works similarly for children in a regular class setting as well as for a variety of special needs students (hearing impaired, learning disabled, emotionally disturbed, developmentally delayed and gifted).

PATHS improves protective factors and reduces behavioural risk factors for youths who have been in the program. Students show improved self-control and better skills in recognition and knowledge of emotions. They are able to handle frustration better, show an effective use of conflict resolution strategies and utilize better planning skills. Specifically for special needs students, teachers have reported that they exhibit decreased anxiety and conduct problems. Special needs students also reported that they are less depressed and reported they display fewer conduct problems and less aggression. Students have also been rated by teachers and parents as more socially competent compared with peers, teachers have rated children as less socially withdrawn at the end of the school year compared with a control group, and children were rated as having better empathy and self-control skills.

Life Skills Training (LST)

This three-year intervention targets all middle and junior high school students to reduce tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use (Botvin et al., 2006; Botvin et al., 1998; 1995; 2001; Botvin and Griffin, 2003). LST is implemented in classrooms by teachers (peer leaders or mental health professionals can also lead the course) with 15 sessions the first year, 10 the second year and five in the third year of the program. These on average 45-minute sessions can be delivered once a week or as a more intensive course. The three major components of the program are general self-management skills, social skills and information, and skills specifically related to drugs, using instruction, demonstration, and reinforcement practices. Studies consistently show that LST demonstrates long-lasting effects to reduce tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use across a wide range of adolescents. Studies have found that it cuts tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use by 50 to 75 per cent. Long-term follow-up shows that LST cuts multiple drug use by 66 per cent, reduces a-pack-a-day smoking by 25 per cent and decreases the uses of narcotics.

LST has also recently been used to target violence. Botvin et al. (2006) tried to show that the strategies used in LST to reduce drug use could also be used to prevent violence. Forty-one public and parochial schools in New York City were randomly assigned to intervention or control conditions (n=4,858 grade six student). The intervention schools received the Life Skills Training prevention program that focuses on violence and the media, anger management, and conflict resolution skills. Survey data was measured before and three months post-intervention. The researchers found significant reductions in delinquency and violence for students in the intervention condition compared with the controls. Stronger prevention effects were found in the group of students who received at least half of the intervention compared with controls, which included less aggression, fighting and delinquency.

Project Towards No Drug Abuse (Project TND)

Project TND targets heterogeneous populations of high school youth (14 to 19 years old). The program is 12 in-class inclusive sessions that provide motivational and decision-making skills around tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, and hard drug use and violent behaviour (Sussman et al., 2004; Simon et al., 2002; Rohrbach et al., 2007). These seminars are about 40 minutes in length and are meant to be implemented over the course of a month. Students gain cognitive motivational techniques to avoid drugs and information about the consequences of drug use and receive correction on improper cognitive perceptions of substance use. Communication and other interpersonal skills such as active listening and stress management are also components.

Three thousand youth from 42 schools have participated in studies of Project TND over three trials (Sussman et al., 2004). One-year follow-up showed a 27 per cent prevalence reduction in one-month cigarette use, 22 per cent prevalence reduction in one-month marijuana use, 26 per cent prevalence reduction in 30-day hard drug use, and six per cent prevalence reduction in victimization among males.

While the program targets preventing drug use, Simon et al. (2002) studied the effectiveness of Project Towards No Drug Abuse on the risk for violence. The researchers sampled 29 school districts from five counties in southern California (n=850 students) over a 12-month period, to determine if victimization, perpetration or weapon-carrying activity differed compared with the control group, using self-report surveys. The researchers found a higher risk for victimization and weapon-carrying among male control students, but no effects on the level of perpetration among males in the intervention group nor any effects of the intervention on female students.

Blueprints Promising Programs

Seattle Social Development Project (SSDP)

This is a universal intervention for the general school population (or it can be used specifically for high-risk children), which works with teachers, parents and students to decrease students’ problem behaviour. Drawing on social control and social learning theories, it attempts to increase pro-social bonds, strengthen attachments to school, and decrease delinquent activities (Hawkins et al., 1988; Hawkins et al., 1991; Hawkins et al., 1992; O’Donnel et al., 1995).

Teachers receive training on proactive classroom techniques, interactive teaching and cooperative learning. These are reflected in the establishment of clear rules and rewards and in allowing students to work in small heterogeneous groups to increase social skills and contact with pro-social peers. Parents receive optional training programs in grades one and two, two and three, and five and six.

SSDP improves school performance, family relationships and student substance use at different grades. At the end of grade two, compared with controls, students showed lower levels of aggression and anti-social behaviours for white males, and lower levels of self-destructive behaviours for white females. At the beginning of the grade five, students had lower levels of alcohol and delinquency, increases in attachment to the family, and more commitment and attachment to the school. At the end of the grade six, high-risk youth, compared with a control group, showed higher levels of attachment and commitment to school, and boys were less involved with anti-social friends. At the end of the grade 11, students in the SSDP were less involved in violent delinquency, sexual activity, being drunk, and drinking and driving.

Preventive Treatment Program (Montreal Longitudinal Experimental Study)

Through parent training and student social-skill training, this program targets boys who display early problem behaviour. Parents are given approximately 17 sessions teaching them how to supervise their child, promote their child’s pro-social behaviour, use punishment effectively deal with family crises effectively. The children identified as disruptive are broken into small groups, which include non-disruptive students as well. In 19 sessions, the boys learn how to improve self-control and pro-social skills through coaching, peer modelling, self-instruction, reinforcement of positive behaviour and role-playing (Tremblay et al., 1991; Tremblay et al., 1992; Tremblay et al., 1996).

The program has been successful for white Canadian males between seven and nine who display high levels of aggression in kindergarten and are from disadvantaged families. At age 12, treated boys were less likely to report minor thefts; they were reported by teachers as fighting less than the control group; 29 per cent of those in the experimental condition were rated as well-adjusted in school versus 19 per cent of the untreated boys; 22 per cent of the treated group showed less serious difficulties in school compared with 44 per cent in the control group; and 23.3 per cent of boys in the program were held back a grade or placed in a special education school versus 43 per cent of the boys not in the program.

At age 15, those boys in the program reported that they were less likely to be involved in gangs; to have been drunk or to have taken drugs in the past year; to have committed acts of delinquency; and to have had friends who were arrested by police than boys who were not in the program.

Good Behaviour Game (GBG)

GBG is a universal classroom management strategy implemented in early elementary school grades that aims to improve disruptive classroom behaviour and later criminality (Barrish et al., 1969; Dolan et al., 1993; Embry, 2002; Swiezy et al., 1992). GBG is a behaviour modification program where inappropriate behaviours are well-established and made clear by teachers. The class is divided into small teams and any time a disruptive behaviour is displayed, that team is given a checkmark. The teams that have not exceeded the pre-determined threshold receive a reward. The teacher then begins the game at various times, without telling students, to produce students who will constantly self-evaluate if they are behaving appropriately.

GBG students, according to teacher reports, are less aggressive and shy, and peers report them better on aggression scales at the end of grade one. By the end of the grade six, GBG students show decreased levels of aggression for males who rated highest pre-intervention on scales of aggression versus the control group male students who also rated high on levels of aggression in grade one.

Linking the Interests of Families and Teachers (LIFT)

LIFT targets all Grade 1 and Grade 5 students and their families living in neighbourhoods considered “at risk” and characterized by high rates of delinquent activity. LIFT targets students’ oppositional and socially inept behaviours, as well as parental monitoring and correction skills, by using a classroom-based problem-solving training, playground-based behaviour modification, and group administered parental training (Eddy et al., 2000; Reid et al., 1999).

The classroom component has a lecture and role-play session that is 20 one-hour sessions delivered in 10 weeks. LIFT modifies the Good Behaviour Game for the playground component, where classes are divided into small groups for playground activities and children earn rewards for displaying positive behaviours. The parental component comprises six meetings at school, with other parents, to learn how to build an environment at home that will provide good discipline and supervision.

Immediate post-test results found that LIFT decreased physical aggression on the playground, and these effects were most pronounced in students who rated high on pre-experimental aggression tests. Mothers with the highest levels of aversive behaviours had the largest reductions of such behaviours compared with the control group. Teachers rated a significant increase in pro-social skills and positive classroom behaviour for students who received the intervention.

A three-year follow-up of the program used four schools chosen as LIFT intervention schools and two control schools (n=671 students). LIFT delayed the time when students first became involved with anti-social peers, first used alcohol, and first used marijuana, and it also delayed the time until the first police arrest.

Other Programs Of Interest

Second Step

This program is a three-year, module-based program whose objectives are fostering pro-social skills (identification of self and other’s feelings, responding with empathy, improving social interaction) and reducing impulsive and aggressive behaviour (recognizing signs and thoughts of anger, using anger management techniques, using problem-solving skills to resolve conflicts, and practicing behavioural skills to cope with difficult social situations). Participants in one study (n=714) were in grades six to eight, drawn from five schools: three in the United States (two in the Pacific Northwest and one in a large Southwestern city) and two schools in an eastern Canadian city. Compared with students in the control conditions, Second Step students in their second year of middle schooling were less likely to accept verbal or physical aggression and social exclusion, and these students were also less likely to rate pro-social skills as difficult to enact. Program effects were less observed for students in their first year of middle/junior high schooling. Male and female participants showed little difference in degree of attitudinal change (Van Schoaick-Edstrom et al., 2002; McMahon and Washburn, 2003).

For African-American students, research has found that self-reported empathy and teacher-reported pro-social behaviour increased significantly, and the increases in empathy significantly predicted less aggressive behaviour. However, the results are mixed, since no change in aggressive behaviour and impulsivity was found.

Responding In Peaceful and Positive Ways (RIPP)

This violence prevention initiative uses an action-research process where a series of programs was developed, put into practice, assessed and later revised based on the evaluations. The main component of the program is an individual-level focused 25-session grade six grade curriculum (RIPP-6) and a 12-session curriculum for grades seven and eight (RIPP-7 and RIPP-8 respectively). The program employs an adult role model who teaches skills and attitudes that promote non-violence. Educational techniques include team-building, small group work, and role-playing, and participants are instructed using the model of social-cognitive problem-solving. Each RIPP level addresses developmental issues specific to the grade level. It is supposed to be implemented with a peer mediation program to promote school-level change (Farrell and Flannery, 2006; Farrell et al., 2001; Farrell et al., 2003a; Farrell et al., 2003b).

Evaluations of RIPP-7 show that students in the treatment condition (n=239), compared with controls (n=237), had fewer disciplinary code violations for violent offences in the following grade eight year at a six-month follow-up.

RIPP-6 students (n=321) showed fewer disciplinary violations for violent offences and fewer in-school suspensions and reported fewer fight-related injuries post-test when compared with a randomly assigned control group (n=305). The reduction in suspension was maintained at 12-month follow-up for boys only, but on other measures at the 12-month follow-up, effects only approached significance.

Self-report effects have not been shown to be maintained on measures of physical aggression, drug use or anxiety. However, the research on RIPP suggests that effects of this program may be limited to those students who already demonstrate high levels of aggressive behaviour, because RIPP’s impact on violent behaviour was highest for students who exhibited higher pre-test scores of problem behaviour. The benefit of this program would then lie in avoiding the stigma and label of pulling at-risk students out of the classroom by instead employing a more universally-based approach.

Putting aside the content and mixed findings on the efficacy of RIPP, the action-research method used to implement this violence prevention initiative may be fruitful to replicate because different schools and communities will have very different needs. It would be beneficial if, during the assessment stage, not only would the program itself be assessed, but also the community and stakeholders involved would form a large part of the evaluation. This means we should be cautious not to put too much emphasis on outcomes-based evaluations at the expense of determining if the process itself is meaningful for the wider community.


PeaceBuilders is a violence prevention program that tries to alter the school climate by teaching some basic rules and activities to staff and students, which are designed to improve social competence and lower aggressive behaviour. PeaceBuilders attempts to train all staff to infuse anti-violence and pro-social language and philosophy into the everyday school environment. This is achieved by teaching participant schools to praise people; avoid put-downs; seek wise people as advisers and friends, see and correct the hurts we cause, and right wrongs (Flannery et al., 2003; Vazsonyi et al., 2004).

One study matched eight schools (grades kindergarten to five) in Prima County, Arizona, and schools were randomly assigned to the immediate intervention condition or one-year delayed intervention (n>4,000 students). In year one, there were significant gains in teacher-rated social competence for kindergarten to grade two students, child self-reported peace-building behaviour for kindergarten to grade five students, and reductions in aggressive behaviour for students in grades three to five in the immediate condition but not the delayed condition. Most effects were maintained into year two for those students in the immediate condition, including increases in pro-social behaviour in grades kindergarten to two.

This program is particularly useful because, Flannery et al. (2003) argue, most violence prevention initiatives are implemented in middle school, but effects for the grades kindergarten to two and three to five were discovered, so preventive intervention should be provided early in elementary school. The larger treatment effects on students in grades three to five who were higher on aggression at baseline supports the growing literature that higher-risk students show larger effects after interventions.

Indeed, further research on PeaceBuilders looked at the differences in male and female youth who were classified at low, medium or high risk for future violence. Eight urban schools were selected from the Tucson area and assigned to the intervention condition or a wait-list control group (n=2,380 predominantly minority students from kindergarten to grade five). Data was collected from teachers from grades kindergarten to grade five and students from grades three to five through in-class surveys. High-risk children reported more decreases in aggression and more increases in social competence compared with children in the low- or medium-risk groups. The data support the finding that large-scale universal violence prevention programs are promising ways to change the risk and protective factors associated with future violence.

Programs That Are Less Effective at Reducing Violence

Peer counselling does not appear to work for school-based violence prevention initiatives (Turk, 2004; Greenwood, 2005), nor does social competency training that does not use cognitive-behavioural techniques (Gottfredson et al., 2002). Alternative recreation programs are also not linked to strong preventive effects, despite the widespread belief that these programs are useful (Greenwood, 2005; Gottfredson et al., 2002).

Perhaps the most celebrated example of a school-based prevention program that does not work is DARE. Initiated by the Los Angeles Police Department, DARE is a highly structured 16-week curriculum of 45-to 60-minute lessons per week designed to prevent substance abuse. Police officers are given 90 hours of training to implement the program. In the early 1990s, this was the program used for drug abuse prevention, and 60 to 80 per cent of all school districts in the United States were estimated to be running DARE.

Early studies showed positive results for DARE (Ennet et al., 1994). However, later studies (Clayton et al., 1996; Dukes et al., 1997; Rosenbaum et al., 1994; 1998) all showed that by the time students in DARE reached their high school years, their behaviour towards drug use and abuse was no different from that of students who had not been in the program. These studies have been generally received as very high-quality randomized field trials and meta-analyses, which selected only the most well-designed studies for their research (Weiss et al., 2008).

This program itself highlights the need for continual independent research on program efficacy, because early results suggested it was useful and governments had adopted it as a model program and provided extensive funding for DARE. However, because it was so extensively adopted, it became the fulcrum of much more research.

Because of the diverse number of violence prevention programs that have been cropping up (with or without rigorous methodological support), the good-quality research that exists is much more fractured, which is why there has been a growing emphasis on meta-analyses (Weiss et al., 2008) to try and tie a diverse array of initiatives together based on program characteristics.

Despite DARE’s shortcomings and non-inclusion on various lists that classify “model” or “promising” programs, Weiss et al. (2008) raise similar issues with three other programs classified as “promising” by Blueprints (not included in this review) and two “model” programs: LST and the Midwestern Prevention Project. Weiss et al. (2008) echo the earlier methodological issue, discussed above, that prevention programs typically show limited evidence of positive findings. They suggest that the patterns of findings and effects for DARE, compared with other prevention programs often classified as “model” or “promising,” are very similar, but that there are more studies on DARE and more negative publicity.

Viligant and Independent Evaluation

Whatever violence prevention initiative is adopted for schools, it remains crucial that the selected intervention(s) is/are continually evaluated by an independent body. There is a poor precedent that school-based programs are not evaluated by schools extensively. Smith et al. (2006) surveyed 395 schools in Ontario and found that only 28 per cent of the participating schools utilized evaluations of their anti-bullying programs. Even when school-based programs were being assessed, the rigour was typically low. Therefore, it should be a priority to continually monitor and assess violence prevention initiatives and, ideally, ensure that programs stand up to the same rigours required for peer-reviewed publications.

Gorman (2005) argues that most violence prevention literature does not judge the scientific status of the theory by using Popper’s (1963) notion of falsifiability. Rather, evaluations are conducted to verify the hypotheses connected to program effectiveness. Gorman specifically looked at the claims made by the research on the Seattle Social Development Project and the Life Skills Training Program. Gorman’s (2005) main concern is around the understanding of this as an actual “science.” For instance, developers do not typically reject any conjectures they make about the efficacy of their program, and this does not lend itself to the claim of a “prevention science.” Furthermore, despite the number of null effects that have been reproduced by these studies, when a statistically significant effect is discovered in one aspect of the program, it is then used to prove the validity for the program in its totality, despite the mixed evidence reported. This suggests the need for independent review of the total effects of interventions.

While the substance of the program is important if it meets certain criteria outlined above, program implementation and delivery can be just as important. Staff and schools need to be continually monitored to ensure that programs are operating effectively (Peterson et al., 2001; Wilson and Lipsey, 2007). Program implementers need not be specialists, because Rohrbach et al. (2007) found that motivated and trained classroom teachers can implement evidence-based prevention programs as well as specialist-led staff. However, continual monitoring of program staff is necessary to ensure that programs are being properly implemented. Program efficacy is also tied to the perceptions of the administrators (Peterson and Esbensen, 2004), so it would also be prudent for schools to locally develop violence prevention programs.

The evaluation of a violence prevention program can be made more difficult by pressures to “do something” and put anything in place. Schools may have a tendency to look to seemingly authoritative lists of successful programs (such as the Blueprints list), and the quality of the program becomes a secondary consideration (Hallfors et al., 2007). This is important to consider when policy-makers or centres of prevention study point out specific programs as either “model” or “promising” and can be rectified by ensuring that the program meets the individual school’s needs and with a continual monitoring of implemented programs.

After-School Initiatives

Unfortunately, there is very little peer-reviewed research on the violence prevention capabilities of after-school programs (ASP), despite their recent proliferation (Gottfredson et al., 2007; Lauer et al., 2006). Furthermore, as Miller (2003) notes, there can be no true experiment on ASP’s because “when it comes to out-of-school time, there is no such thing as a ‘no treatment’ group” (88), meaning that students are always doing something. We do know that delinquent activity is reported higher during the immediate hours after school (Gottfredson et al., 2001), so it would seem, at least from a rudimentary understanding of routine activities theory, to be prudent to keep students occupied and away from a higher number of self-care hours. However, this does not mean that all ASP programs will be effective at reducing youth violence. Indeed, research suggests that program structure (is the program highly organized or not) and content (is the program based on a specific curriculum or planned set of activities) will ultimately determine the effectiveness of specific after-school programs. Some studies, in fact, suggest that improperly designed ASP’s can actually increase youth victimization and delinquent activity (Gottfredson et al., 2007; Mahoney et al., 2000; 2004).

Gottfredson et al. (2007) highlight some of the key characteristics that successful ASPs contain by studying data from 35 funded programs in the state of Maryland (n=497 high school students in total). Nine of these programs provided a comparison sample at pre-and post-test (n=108). The researchers were interested in examining correlates of program success in reducing substance use, delinquency and victimization that controlled for potentially confounding variables (individual and program-level characteristics).

Gottfredson et al. (2007) found that smaller-sized ASPs are important, as the students who went to larger ASPs experienced more victimization and engaged in more delinquency. The researchers also found that better program structure was linked to lower rates of delinquency and victimization, and programs using a published curriculum had significant effects on substance use. Basic recreation time was not linked to the outcomes, which contradicts previous research (Gerstenblith et al., 2005). Program staff is also very important to program success, as programs with higher levels of staff education translated into lower levels of delinquency and victimization. On the other hand, unstructured time and socializing were related to higher levels of victimization, which replicates Osgood and Anderson’s (2004) results, but the total time of unsupervised socializing with peers did not increase delinquent behaviour, which contradicts previous research. ASPs that hired more college graduates and used published curriculum to guide daily activities were more successful in lowering levels of substance abuse and delinquency. Specifically, the Life Skills Training program (reviewed above) was used most commonly, but programs drew from a range of published guides. The researchers caution that this should not be taken to be a replication of the finding that ASPs that teach life skills are effective at prevention, but they suggest that it does show that planned activities based on well-established instructional methods can be effective at lowering delinquency and victimization.

The researchers caution that their data is not a true meta-analysis and only speaks to correlations. The lack of studies on ASP suggests the need for further research and an on-going independent evaluation, that would stand up to the rigours sought in peer-reviewed journals, for whatever ASP programs become implemented. Gottfredson et al. (2007) also point out that low-risk students tend to remain for the duration of an ASP, while higher-risk students have lower rates of voluntary participation. In the research sample, there were high levels of attrition in both the treatment group (41 per cent) and the comparison group (31 per cent). So, while their study points to specific characteristics of programs that seem beneficial to prevent violence and delinquency and some effects are observed compared with a control group, those enrolled in these programs may not be those who need such interventions the most (such as at-risk students).

Not all findings about ASPs have shown positive results. Weisman et al. (2002) conducted a quasi-experimental evaluation of 14 ASPs and found that those who attended ASPs displayed higher rates of delinquency, rebelliousness, variety of drug use and exposure to peers who used drugs, from the beginning to the end of the program, when compared with a control group. Similarly, in Swedish youth recreation centres, Mahoney et al. (2000) found that these centres, although not truly after school because they were open in the evenings, were related to higher rates of juvenile offending and persistent offending, even after self-selection factors were controlled for. Unfortunately, these studies did not control for program structure or content.

At-risk Students

Research suggests that the students who could be classified at higher risk for violence and victimization are less likely to voluntarily enrol in ASP programs (Gottfredson et al., 2007). However, in a meta-analysis of 35 “out-of-school-time” program evaluations that were experimental or quasi-experimental, Lauer et al. (2006) discovered that such programs can have a positive effect on the achievement of “at-risk” students in reading and math versus the control population of “at-risk” students. However, Lauer et al. (2006) also note how difficult it is to track attendance rates in these ASPs and their subsequent evaluations, which presents a methodological issue when looking at research on ASPs.

Lord and Mahoney (2007) conducted a longitudinal study over two years to explore associations of neighbourhood crime, academic performance and aggression in a sample of 581 Grade 1 to Grade 3 children. The researchers broke up the participants into tiers according to the number of hours the children were supervising themselves (Low: zero to three hours; Medium: four to nine hours and High: 10 to 15 hours). Moderate and High amounts of self-care were linked to poorer academic performance and higher rates of aggression in children living in high-crime areas but not in children from average crime areas. This suggests that lowering the number of hours of self-care may be of most importance for “high-crime” areas or areas “at risk” for crime and violence.

The Harvard Family Research Project

The Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) operates very similarly to the Blueprints project. The HFRP keeps a database of after-school program evaluations and also recently (February 2008) prepared a brief to specifically highlight the seminal and experimental research. The HFRP (2008) review notes that much of the research is plagued with selection biases (as discussed earlier, where students self-select themselves into such programs) and very few are true randomized experiments. With these limitations in mind, the HFRP attempts to single out from their database the highest-quality studies that employed an experimental or quasi-experimental approach. However, the threshold of research selected is more vague than Blueprints and seems to include every possible type of quasi-experimental or experimental study that they deem of high calibre (for instance, they have multi-site and single-site studies, school-and community-based models, studies that look at narrow or broad outcomes, and research syntheses and meta-analyses). While they break up their analyses of ASP programs into academic, social/emotional development, crime, drug and sex prevention, and promoting health and wellness components, the prevention outcomes will be specifically focused on for the purpose of this literature review.

Project Venture

Project Venture is a substance abuse prevention program (an outdoor program) that tries to help students with a positive self-concept, strong interpersonal communication skills, an orientation to community service, and learning problem-solving skills. Three hundred and fifty middle school students in New Mexico participated in this study, which used measures of actual levels and risk levels for substance abuse with respect to both the experimental and the control condition (Carter et al., 2006 as cited by Goss et al., 2008).

Students in the program displayed less growth in substance use in terms of alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes and combined substances. The researchers also reported finding a non-significant trend, over time, for the treatment group to have lower growth rates of cigarette and drug use, but found significant slower growth rates for the treatment group in the area of alcohol use.

LA’s BEST Program

This ASP attempts to give students enhanced opportunities and create a safe environment by providing educational support, enrichment, and recreational activities. The study (n=2,300 students from 24 schools) found that the intervention reduced juvenile crime, and reduced it even more so in the case of those students who were heavily involved in the program. The cost-benefit analysis they performed suggested a savings of $2.50 for every dollar invested in the program (Oldschmidt et al., 2007 as cited by Goss et al., 2008).

Huang et al. (2000 as cited by Goss et al., 2008) argue that participation in LA’s BEST improves school attendance rates, students hope to do more upon graduation, and students in the program have more post-secondary education experiences. Huang et al. (2007 as cited by Goss et al., 2008), in a longitudinal study of the program, found that the implementation of the program for at least 12 months from grade two to grade five meant that students had lower dropout rates in high school. The higher the participation in the program, the bigger the reduction in dropout rates, particularly for low-income students.

Girl Inc.’s Friendly PEERsuasion EXPAND

This program emphasizes social skills and reduces the likelihood of beginning to drink and the incidence of drinking for students who had previously used alcohol. Kennedy (1991) randomly assigned individuals to participate in the PEERsuasion program. The program significantly reduced the onset of drinking and the incidence of drinking. Treatment participants were more likely to leave gatherings where drinking was occurring and participants also displayed fewer positive attitudes toward drinking. This is in line with the view that structured and organized treatments and multi-modal programs are more effective in the prevention of delinquency (Weiss and Nicholson, 1998; Smith and Kennedy, 1991).

What Characteristics Do Successful Programs Share?

From their database on different ASPs that have different goals in mind (from academic enrichment to prevention efforts), the Harvard Family Research Project (2008) suggests that there are three factors that contribute to the success of a given ASP.

First, there is a gap in effects between the children whose families have a higher income and more education and the children from more disadvantaged families. The more advantaged children were more likely to participate in ASPs and to do so more frequently per week. They were in more diverse ASPs and were more likely to be in enrichment programs versus those that were strictly tutoring programs. Thus, it seems that sustained participation in an ASP can be an elusive thing to achieve, particularly for students who seem to need these interventions the most. From a policy standpoint, it may be counterproductive to compel participation in ASP, yet on a volunteer basis, higher-risk students may not attend such programs. For ASPs, as already mentioned, it has been difficult to accurately track attendance rates (Lauer et al., 2006).

Second, quality programming is essential, with well-prepared staff that engages in positive and meaningful interactions with students. A quality program is also assured with appropriate levels of supervision and structure, because students grouped together without strong supervision or with higher levels of unstructured time are more likely to engage in problematic behaviour. Also, an intentionally designed program is necessary so that a quality ASP can target specific outcomes.

Third, strong partnerships with stakeholders such as the family, the community and schools are essential to support the development of students across multiple contexts. The Nexus Policing project in Australia may provide some insight on how to problem-solve and build relationships with multiple stakeholders and service providers (see Wood et al., 2008). The Nexus project encourages “participatory action research,” which is a research methodology that encourages active participation, group reflection and evaluation. Participatory action research attempts to approach and solve community issues, in this case specifically around policing, uniquely by bringing academics and practitioners together to learn from one another (Wood et al., 2008). Violence prevention and the school, and to an even greater degree violence prevention in broader society, is multi-contextual and has diverse stakeholders. An approach like Nexus would help establish the necessary partnerships among the stakeholders involved.

Other ASP Initiatives

21st Century Community Learning Centers

This particular program is a U.S. federally funded program to open up schools later for broader use by the community. It was refocused in 1998 to provide academic, enrichment and recreational activities in public schools in the hours after school. Mahoney and Zigler (2006) argue that there is little peer-reviewed research in the area of after-school programs, and they caution specifically against the data that exists on 21st Century Community Learning Centers because it has not been replicated across independent studies, it has not been vetted through peer-reviewed scrutiny, and there is little reporting of the weaknesses of their own evaluations.

James-Burdumy et al. (2007) studied these Community Learning Centers by randomly assigning elementary students who were interested in attending the program to either the treatment or the control condition (n=2,308). It should be noted that it is not clear if the students in the two groups were matched on various scales. Also, there were sampling issues, since students targeted for this experiment were only from oversubscribed Centers (where half were allowed in and the other half made up the control sample). Therefore, this experimental study is not ideal, as it was specific to the 21st Century Community Learning Centers that had an overflow population. These schools did have higher than the average percentage of students using the free lunch program. The high number suggests that these oversubscribed Centers were in more impoverished areas, but this is a hypothesis not systematically discernable from the study. The researchers found that there was no significant effect on the frequency of student self-care, which suggests that the program was taking in students who would have already been supervised by another adult or parent rather than the group at a higher risk for self-care. Students in the Center reported feeling safer, but there was no effect on homework completion and there was no improvement observed on tests or grades. In fact, the researchers found that the program seemed to increase problem behaviour.

Positive Youth Development

Positive Youth Development (PYD) is a comprehensive program that focuses on the positive contributions and behaviours that youth exhibit, eschewing negative connotations or characterizations. There is an 18-session after-school program to teach students effective decision-making skills with regard to the harms associated with substance use. The program is based on previous established curricula (Yale Adolescent Decision-Making Program and the Positive Youth Development Program). Over 300 middle and high school students participated in the study, in either control or intervention groups. Students were tested at the beginning and end of the program, as well as in a one-year follow-up. The authors found that the PYD program significantly lowered the likelihood for substance use, and significantly increased the likelihood of an internalized belief that drugs were harmful (Tebes et al., 2007).

Boys and Girls Clubs

An evaluation of the effects of the Boys and Girls Clubs’ use of reading classes, sports, homework assistance, and the use of SMART (Self-Management and Resistance Training – a substance abuse prevention program), was conducted in public housing sites. The researchers used a pre-test/post-test experimental design, with a non-randomized control group. Five sites had traditional Boys and Girls Clubs programming, five sites added SMART to the traditional programming, and five sites had no intervention. The housing projects with Boys and Girls Clubs, with or without SMART, had significantly less juvenile criminal activity, although this was 70 arrests compared with 80 arrests. The public housing sites with Boys and Girls Clubs also had fewer damaged units, lower rates of substance abuse, and less drug trafficking (Schinke et al., 2000; Schinke, Orlandi and Cole, 1992).

The educational enhancement program that the BGC initiated for at-risk youth in 1996 in public housing areas in New York, Cleveland, Oakland, Tampa and Edinburgh, Texas involved components such as discussing with adults, writing activities, leisure reading, homework, helping others and games using cognitive skills. Results have indicated that those receiving educational enhancement, versus a control group, showed increases in reading, verbal skills, writing and tutoring. Teachers rated treatment participants higher on reading, writing, overall school performance and interest in school material. School grades were higher for treatment groups in reading, spelling, history, social studies and science. Treatment students also had higher grade averages and higher attendance rates. While there were no measures on the violence prevention merits of this initiative, the apparent increase in bonds to the school represented by attendance rates higher than the control group indicates that educationally focused interventions can provide measurable effects outside of educational achievement scores.

Participate and Learn Skills (PAL)

The researchers conducted a study on a 32-month Ottawa program implemented in a public housing complex. Low-income children aged five to15 were sought to participate in activities that would increase skill level in a variety of areas (music, sports, dance, etc.). PAL’s aims were to build the skill levels of participants and to integrate children in the complex into the wider community. Jones and Offord also hypothesized that this development program could also help in other areas, such as having more pro-social behaviours and attitudes (Jones and Offord, 1989).

The youth in the public housing unit (n=417) were matched with those in another public housing complex (n=488). During the program’s 32 months, the monthly average of youth charged by the police was 80 per cent less in the treatment condition (.2 per month compared with 1.0 charged per month in the control condition). Sixteen months post-intervention, this decreased somewhat to 0.5 children who had received the program charged per month versus 1.1 children in the control condition. Skill enhancement and integration with the surrounding community was better for those in the PAL program. There were some additional effects observed in self-esteem, as treatment children showed an increase in self-esteem, but there was no change in behaviours observed at home or school.

Although the control group was not matched along in-group characteristics, the control group showed consistency during and post-intervention on the number of charges per month. While the effects in the treatment condition did wear off, which does undermine its impact (Welsh and Hoshi, 2001), the jump in the number of young people charged per month from 0.2 to 0.5 post-intervention suggests that if this program remained in operation, it could significantly reduce the number of young people charged by the police. However, the caution is that the number of charges the police lay is not necessarily linked to the true amount (and seriousness) of delinquent activity.

Some Final Thoughts

While I have tried to focus this literature review on “what works” in the general context of violence prevention in schools, the better question will always be, “What works, given the needs and values of my students and community and the condition and capacity of my school and district” (Simmons, 2005: 9 as cited in Weiss et al., 2008). If there is anything that the Ontario experiment with zero tolerance can teach us, it is that blanket reforms and statements concerning disciplining students is not productive and that the plethora of needs is quite different within each city, community, school and even in each individual classroom. To assess “what works” in this context requires an unearthing of the various positions, social locations, and resources each stakeholder and participant may be able to bring to the table concerning violence prevention in schools. Therefore, participatory and independent research seems to be able to ensure that the process of unearthing “what works” is continually discussed, evaluated and re-enacted by the very people who will benefit from these initiatives.


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15 This chapter was written by Zachary Levinsky, Ph.D candidate, Centre of Criminology, University of Toronto.

16 Some of the programs listed below have also been discussed in the previous chapter on early childhood development. They have also been included in this chapter because: 1) These programs are based in school settings and would be of interest to those interested in school-based prevention; and 2) Those interested in school-based prevention may not have been interested in reviewing the previous chapter


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews