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Youth Violence Prevention and the Public Library’s Role

Many of our communities are dealing with the issues of youth violence and establishing robust youth violence prevention programs. As librarians who spend our days serving our community, we know that many of these youth come through our doors.  It is no longer enough for Public Libraries to say “Well, I offer programs or we have video games to bring them in or I partner with a group that offers tutoring…” as our contribution.  We know the immense power of libraries to change lives and we know the impact they can have on the problems of youth violence. To not act proactively is to be negligent.

It is imperative that we find where these conversations are happening within our community and get a seat at the table so that we are in the best position to offer our services, skills and facilities to aid the effort.  I won’t dwell on “finding the conversation” as we are all librarians and therefore good at our research and knowing our community partners.  The trickiest part here is “getting a seat at the table”.  Why is it that others are invited to the table and we are not? We regularly offer “We want to help.” Or “Let us know if there is anything we can do or that you need”.  Well guess what? EVERYONE is doing that.  You would be hard pressed to find any caring individual who does not believe that youth violence is a serious problem that must be addressed.  When you simply make your blanket offer of ‘help’, you join a cacophony of other voices.
In addition, we have learned that much of the general public simply does not know what a 21st Century library has to offer (a topic for many more posts).  Those individuals serving in the effort to reduce youth violence are no different! So in addition to their effort to address one of the most complex social issues of our time, the last thing they want to add to their plate is to try to figure out how the library can assist them.  YOU have to bring that to the conversation.  When the library’s value to finding a solution is clearly presented, you will be offered a seat at the table.

So how do you make the library’s value apparent?  By presenting your own cohesively planned Youth Violence Prevention Program at your library.  When you can say to potential partners such as local law enforcement, community organizations and other social services: “The Library recognizes the serious issue of Youth Violence in our community and this is what we are doing.  How can we work together with your efforts?” NOW that potential partner has something to consider. NOW they understand the potential you bring to the table because they can clearly see what you are doing.

I can almost hear your next question.  “Okay. That sounds great! But how do I develop a comprehensive program to address such an overwhelming issue that so many are trying to solve?”  First you must understand it to the best of your ability.

From the Center for Disease Control (CDC) 2015 Fact sheet on Youth Violence :

What is Youth Violence?

Youth violence refers to harmful behaviors that can start early and continue into young adulthood. The young person can be a victim, an offender, or a witness to the violence.
Youth violence includes various behaviors. Some violent acts—such as bullying, slapping, or hitting—can cause more emotional harm than physical harm. Others, such as robbery and assault (with or without weapons), can lead to serious injury or even death.

As Librarians we know the importance of data:

Youth violence is widespread in the United States (U.S.). It is the third leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 15 and 24.
•In 2012, 4,787 young people aged 10 to 24 years were victims of homicide—an average of 13   each day.
•Over 599,000 young people aged 10 to 24 years had physical assault injuries treated in U.S. emergency departments—an average of 1642 each day.
•In a 2013 nationwide survey, about 24.7% of high school students reported being in a physical fight in the 12 months before the survey.
•About 17.9% of high school students in 2013 reported taking a weapon to school in the 30 days before the survey.
•In 2013, 19.6% of high school students reported being bullied on school property and 14.8% reported being bullied electronically.
•Each year, youth homicides and assault-related injuries result in an estimated $16 billion in combined medical and work loss costs.

Who is Most at Risk? What are the most common risk factors?

• Prior history of violence
• Drug, alcohol, or tobacco use
• Association with delinquent peers
• Poor family functioning
• Poor grades in school
• Poverty in the community

Prevention is the ultimate goal  and the following prevention strategies have been identified:

• Parent- and family-based programs improve family relations. Parents receive training on child development. They also learn skills for talking with their kids and solving problems in nonviolent ways.
• Social-development strategies teach children how to handle tough social situations. They learn how to resolve problems without using violence.
• Mentoring programs pair an adult with a young person. The adult serves as a positive role model and helps guide the young person’s behavior.
• Changes can be made to the physical and social environment. These changes address the social and economic causes of violence.

Obviously a problem like youth violence is far more complex than can be summed up in the previous paragraphs, and I would encourage everyone to do much more extensive research on the topic as it relates to your community.  However, this overview does provide us with a solid foundation to discuss the process for creating your library’s Youth Violence Prevention Program.

You are likely already doing wonderful things in your library to support teens.  By their very nature, those initiatives form the foundation of your fully realized Youth Violence Prevention Program.  The goal now is to build upon these loose ideas to create a cohesive plan that will guide future decisions to ensure a strategic programming direction and that you will be able to present to other individuals and organizations.

Start by making a list of all the programs and initiatives you have currently.  Look back at the previous CDC information. Where do your efforts fit within their identified prevention strategies? Where are the holes or unmet needs?  Your plan could include initiatives such as:

  • Host and partner with high-risk youth mentor/apprentice programs
  • Provide support for outreach workers serving in neighborhoods with high incidents of violence
  • Work with locally established programs on school truancy review, discuss and dissect your library’s policy on youth truancy.
  • Host gang intervention programs provided by local law enforcement and Juvenile Justice partners
  • Provide and host job readiness/life skills/employment programs
  • Provide and host financial literacy programs
  • Support and provide services specifically to the underserved, at-risk populations such as LGBTQ youth, immigrant or undocumented youth, and homeless or unaccompanied youth
  • Host peer education initiatives
  • Offer programs which develop self-esteem and self-worth
  • Create programs that build leadership and teamwork

IMPORTANT ASIDE: Remember that when we talk about Youth Violence we are generally discussing a population between the ages of 10-24.  This is a much different range than we typical target in any of our children or teen programming.  Keep that in mind as you look at your planned approach.

Then, look back at the risk factors listed in the CDC Fact Sheet.  Identify those areas of the community you feel share these challenges.  Next, detail your outreach and marketing plan to targeted each of the areas of your community you have identified. Finally, just as you would with any strategic plan, set goals and milestones for your work. Keep in mind that goals must be reasonable.  Yes “Eradicate all youth violence” may be the ultimate goal; but realistically that is an overreach for any single plan.  Perhaps your  goals could include the number of programs you hope to offer this year, number of participants, number of partners, etc.

Now that you have a solid plan…implement it. Straight away! No delays! In this effort, there is not a moment to lose. And as soon as you get that ball rolling, start those conversations with your community partners including local law enforcement, various social services, the schools, and community organizations.  You are now beginning those conversations with a clear position and a cohesive plan that demonstrates the value your library brings to the effort to prevent and ultimately end Youth Violence; and your library will be able to sit down at the table as a true and equal partner.

Youth Violence is a problem that will only be solved when we all work together. We know public libraries can and must play a vital role in saving our youth.

Take your seat at the table …its time to get to work.

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