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Triggers of Violence Still Elusive

Long-term studies now identify 'risk factors' that lead youths to lash out. But no one can predict an individual's behavior.


A decade or so ago, nobody knew if there was any solution to youth violence in America.

As Monday's school shootings in Santee illustrate, researchers still have much to learn before society can stop this and other kinds of senseless killing and maiming.

But by tracking thousands of children in long-term studies, social scientists have homed in on dozens of "risk factors" for violence. They've brainstormed new ways to help ward off or quell violent behavior. And they have taken the crucial next step and tested dozens of interventions in scientifically designed studies.

The science reveals that some programs work well. Some don't. And some can backfire.

Many of these findings were reviewed in a recent report of the surgeon general--requested in the aftermath of the Columbine High School tragedy--which drew on the expertise of violence researchers across the country. They point to clear changes in the way this country should handle the problem of youth violence.

"There are programs that are in fact effective in preventing youth violence--and it's really critical that those programs be implemented in a timely fashion," said Surgeon General David Satcher.

At the same time, "most of the things that people are out there doing in our communities and schools have never been evaluated," said Delbert Elliott, senior scientific editor of the surgeon general's report and director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "We simply don't know if they work or not."

That, he said, can translate to more than a waste of time, money and effort. Studies outlined in the surgeon general's report show that some popular measures--such as funneling juveniles into the adult criminal justice system, counseling youth in groups and prison visit shock programs like Scared Straight--may further harden troubled children and increase their involvement in crime and violence.

Meanwhile, studies are finding that programs that aid low-income pregnant mothers, help high risk children forge stronger ties to school and home and intervene on many fronts in the lives of delinquents can reduce the chances of later violence.

Yet for all the new knowledge, it's still impossible to predict if any one child will turn to violence, making "profiling" of high-risk children a potentially damaging game. Even risk factors with so-called "strong" effects--such as having delinquent friends--aren't good predictors. Most children who have been exposed to such risks won't become violent.

Moreover, researchers haven't found clear profiles for a youth who commits the rare kind of school violence seen in Santee's Santana High School and at Columbine, said Jane Grady, assistant director at the Colorado violence center.

For instance, a study by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education of 37 school shootings revealed that factors such as school performance, presence or absence of mental and drug problems and being a loner or being sociable varied greatly among different cases.

The report found, however, that such attacks are usually planned, that the perpetrators often have perceived grievances, that two-thirds believed they had been bullied or persecuted--and in more than three-fourths of the cases the attacker told at least one person (usually a peer) about his plans.

Thus, said Grady, it's really important that children learn that reporting such threats isn't "ratting" but crucial in keeping schools safe and getting the troubled youth help.

Long-Term Studies Focus on Violence

Much of the new information about violent and delinquent behavior has emerged from several large, long-term studies.

The power of such "longitudinal" studies is that they can track thousands of individual children's lives in detail, into adolescence and beyond, and watch how violent lives develop. Using statistical methods, researchers can figure out which factors in those children's lives seem to steer them toward deviance.

Clear patterns are emerging.

Violent careers develop along two main paths. Sometimes, children start early: They've already committed acts of violence before puberty. Early starters are more likely to become chronic, violent offenders. More commonly, children who turn to violence do so first in adolescence.

Myriad risk factors exist for later violence, including birth complications, poverty, antisocial parents, poor parenting, aggression, academic failure, psychological problems and alienation from home, school and non-delinquent peers.

Some risk factors have more clout than others. And their importance waxes and wanes through a child's life.

For instance, a young child's life is centered in the home, and thus it's not surprising that a poor home life in the early years of life is particularly damaging. But hanging with antisocial peers is only a weak risk factor until children hit adolescence and are straining to join the wider world. Then it becomes a huge influence.

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