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Back to Archives | Back to October 2007 Contents 

Can Youth Leadership Programs Thwart School Violence?

By Lex T. Eckenrode, Chief Executive Officer, Virginia Police Chiefs Foundation


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ccording to the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, as reported in 2006, guns caused nearly 80 percent of all violent deaths in schools. Recalling the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 and the others that followed on its heels, the senseless tragedy on the campus of Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, has renewed the United States’ sense of urgency in determining how best to confront school violence. Can the law enforcement community prevent these situations or, at the least, provide school-age students with the tools to assist authorities in early detection of violence-prone students?

In a 2006 article titled “Preventing School Violence and Reducing the Frequency of Disturbing Threats,” author Mark D. Lerner, Ph.D., chairman of the National Center for Crisis Management and president of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, states that in order to prevent school violence,

We must help our children and adolescents to develop and enhance their communication and problem-solving skills. We must teach them how to actively listen and to empathize when relating with others. We must help our children to understand the importance of articulating their feelings about themselves and for others, and to know that it is okay to err on the side of caution when expressing concerns about others. We must regularly remind them that they can turn to their parents and/or school support personnel who will take the time to listen and respond to them.1

Lerner goes on to say that school violence can be stemmed by helping children to understand which of their behaviors cause others to become angry, making them aware of how negative statements about themselves promote frustration and how positive statements generate feelings of sincerity and compassion. He emphasizes that the actions, moral code, and compassion of adults will help set the standard for children. In other words, if adults give them the tools to cope, they will become more responsible, compassionate, and communicative; they will be better problem solvers and better leaders, have more self esteem, and become less frustrated and less likely to turn to violence to solve their problems.

Following the shootings at Columbine and other schools, most police departments around the country began to review and revise their tactical response strategies to these tragically violent events. This trend included police agencies in Virginia as well. Whereas initial discussions centered on school violence, Virginia police chiefs quickly moved beyond addressing school violence as a single issue. Instead, they broadened the discussion to include educating teens to take positive leadership roles in their schools and communities. The Commonwealth Youth Conference for Leadership Effectiveness (CYCLE) was born of these discussions. Through a partnership between the Virginia Police Chiefs Foundation (VPCF) and the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech, CYCLE was developed to focus not just on school violence but on many of the social issues confronting teens today.

Although the Columbine tragedy served as the catalyst for the CYCLE program, other, more recent incidents have proven that Columbine was not a one-time, isolated event—the threat of school violence is imminent. In January 2006, police and school officials uncovered and thwarted a plot by several teens involving two Albemarle County, Virginia, high schools, near Charlottesville, that was eerily similar to Columbine. Other states as well have had comparable incidents—both of violence and of attempts thwarted. And, of course, no one will forget the senseless Virginia Tech massacre in April of this year. Because of ongoing threats of school violence, youth leadership programs like CYCLE are perhaps more important than ever.

What Is CYCLE?

The VPCF created and implemented a youth leadership education program for rising 10th-graders from around Virginia that provides teens with skills in personal leadership that will equip them to make more effective and appropriate decisions throughout their lives, as individuals and as members of a team. This program is designed to help teens focus on what they can control, developing their leadership skills and building their self-esteem. CYCLE allows students to work with other teens to learn about different cultures, gender differences, personalities, and how best to work together. It provides them with the tools to enhance their learning process, expand opportunities, increase potential, and become good leaders, giving back to the community.

This program strives to promote an environment where future leaders can learn and embrace the values of U.S. diversity. VPCF representatives were emphatic that the target audience be average teens with leadership potential but who have not been given the opportunities to which other students have had access through the school system and other public and private programs. Many teens with high grade point averages (GPAs) have opportunities to enhance their skills in a multitude of areas, and underachieving teens are provided with opportunities to make life-altering changes if they decide to do so. However, the foundation uncovered few programs focused on the group in the middle. “Average” teens often fall into the wrong crowd and can become part of the problem themselves. These are the teens who could go either way, who could easily slip through the cracks and turn to a life of crime, gang involvement, or violence.
Figure 1

As a result of this, CYCLE’s curriculum directs leadership lessons at the “average” teen, focusing on good decision making, communication skills, diversity, good citizenship, and issues of violence and anger management (see figure 1). These are the skills about which Lerner speaks in his article on preventing school violence. Upon completion of the program, participants are able to gain an understanding of their leadership potential, demonstrate a better understanding of self and how to relate others, demonstrate effective communication to support positive interactions, demonstrate problem analysis skills to assist in decision making, understand the value of teamwork, and understand the individual’s role in our communities and society (see figure 2).

Figure 2

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Teens are taught self-leadership by a team of five Virginia Tech college juniors/seniors majoring in business, typically with a leadership minor, at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business in Blacksburg. CYCLE’s curriculum is supplemented with the textbook The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, by Sean Covey. All college students directing the program—known as residential instructional counselors (RICs)—undergo a background check as well as an extensive training program conducted by Virginia Tech. RICs give teens case studies and situations to analyze and apply their new skills and put them in teams to discuss and present their solutions to such major problems as gang violence, bullies, drugs, alcohol, guns, and meanspirited behavior. The desired outcome is a population of adolescents who, by virtue of acquired self-leadership skills, will reject violence and the use of illegal substances and encourage similar behavior among their peers. In addition, the program promotes a healthy relationship between students and law enforcement officers, increasing opportunities for understanding and communication between these two groups.

What Makes CYCLE Unique?

First and foremost, CYCLE is not directed at one or two areas of delinquent behavior but rather focuses on all of life’s issues and making good choices. In Lerner’s article, he states that “children lack interpersonal communication,coping, and problem solving skills to meet the challenges of our new world—one reason why an increasing number of them act-out feelings of anger and frustration in dangerous attention-seeking ways, ‘self-medicate’ with alcohol and other substances, and commit suicide at a higher rate than ever before.”2

Lerner states that “we must work toward improving communication in order to prevent violent school-based tragedies . . .through a multimodal approach.”3 CYCLE is an effective approach that teaches, among other things, interpersonal communication, coping skills, and problem-solving strategies. In addition, the program offers the following benefits:


  • CYCLE is a partnership of the local police agency, the local high school, students, and their parents or guardians.

  • The program is a week-long educational course, not a summer camp or a “typical” conference, where learning is a directed activity and RICs monitor and assess individual and group outcomes.

  • It is designed for “average” youths, those often overlooked by other programs targeting “at-risk” or academically “gifted” students.

  • Program attendance is limited to rising 10th-grade students, both male and female, from ages 13 to 15. According to the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, the percentage of juveniles admitted into a Virginia detention home in 2006 more than doubled from age 14 to age 17.4 For this reason, CYCLE’s target audience of teens age 13–15 is critical to the success of this program—and to these teens’ futures.

  • Students are nominated for CYCLE participation by a police officer or their school resource officer.

  • Students must have at least a 2.0 GPA and no major infractions on their disciplinary record.

  • The local chief of police personally endorses each student application, and local police officers transport teens selected to attend CYCLE to and from the Virginia Tech campus.

One of the other unique aspects of this program is the interrelationship among CYCLE students, RICs, and the police officers/school resource officers (SROs) who attend the sessions. Teens attend CYCLE first and foremost to learn about themselves and their potential leadership roles. But throughout theweek, they also develop better communication skills with law enforcement officers and authority figures. Therefore, CYCLE fully utilizes both the RICs and the police officers/SROs to further this developing relationship.

While the students are on the campus, the RICs accompany them at all times, and three police officers attend each session with the teens. Officers and RICs stay in the dorms with the students and escort them to all events outside of the dorms, including classes, meals, and recreational activities. Other law enforcement officials from throughout Virginia visit with the teens each week of the program. In addition, the Virginia Tech Police Department patrols the campus, buildings, and dorms regularly. These measures provide these teens with the opportunity to interact positively with law enforcement officers, and the program enhances communication between these two groups long after the students graduate from CYCLE.

Long-Term Benefits

The long-term benefits of program participation reach beyond the individual teen who attends. Because the program is geared toward rising 10th-graders, CYCLE allows students to share the lessons they learned with other teens and to have a continuing influence in their schools and communities for three years after completing the program. Hopefully, these students are more likely to communicate suspicious behavior of classmates to SROs or teachers, become positive role models to other students in the school, and exhibit leadership abilitiesduring difficult school-related situations than they were before attending the program.

The seeds CYCLE plants bear fruit not only upon completion of the program, and not just in three years’ time, but maybe even more so as these teens become members of our adult community. As they assume their new roles in the coming years as working members of society and perhaps as parents, they will put to good use the life lessons they learn at programs such as CYCLE in their communities, in the workplace, and even in their homes as they raise their children. Building a good foundation is the key to stability and success—the VPCF believes CYCLE is helping to do just that.

Program Evaluation

In only six years of operation, CYCLE has exceeded the expectations of the VCPF, its board, and many others. Feedback from students, parents, counselors, SROs, and police chiefs has included many positive reports of the impact CYCLE is having not only on the youths attending but also on their peers and schools.

The evaluation plan for CYCLE’s effectiveness in developing self-directed leaders includes both objective and subjective components: pretraining and posttraining written evaluation of the participants’ attitudes toward personal accountability and self-leadership, follow-up interviews with CYCLE participants conducted by staff and counselors following CYCLE training, and direct feedback from students and parents.

In addition, in June 2005 staff at Virginia Tech completed a longitudinal survey of 2002–2004 CYCLE graduates. Because the 2002 CYCLE graduates were high school seniors in the 2004–2005 academic year, information was sought about the impact of their CYCLE experience and their use of skills learned during their CYCLE session. Another survey was conducted in the summer of 2007, and the results are currently being tabulated; the information gathered will be used to update the CYCLE program as needed and assist in training counselors and SROs.

Racial and ethnic diversity is also measured. Despite the fact that the CYCLE application does not request or require racial, ethnic, or gender identifiers, the program has always represented racial and ethnic diversity. In previous years, minority participation has been consistently reported at between 30 and 45 percent. In 2006, the numbers were consistent with prior years, with minorities making up 32 percent of attendees. To increase minority participation, the foundation continues to work with police officers/SROs, teachers, and guidance counselors to increase nomination and participation of minority students.

Much of CYCLE’s evaluation data is anecdotal and not statistical. Part of the difficulty in compiling statistical data is that CYCLE’s written evaluation forms are anonymous. Since some of the evaluation questions deal with sensitive subjects such as attitudes about sex, use of alcohol and illegal substances, as well as behavior modifications and related matters, evaluations do not require students to submit their names; this helps to ensure honest responses from student participants. This anonymity also makes it more challenging to track these individuals after they leave high school, should the foundation wish to conduct postsecondary evaluations. Acknowledging the need for additional statistical data, the foundation plans to focus future evaluation strategies to address this issue and enhance program evaluation.

Cost Benefits of CYCLE

Each year, the foundation accepts a total of 125 students, all rising 10th graders ages 13–15, into one of five weeklong CYCLE courses—25 students per session. The cost per student is $750, which covers tuition, instructional fees, course materials, lodging, meals, and recreational activities.

For some teens, one wrong decisionor one bad choice could result in law enforcement intervention, a court date, or possibly incarceration. CYCLE as a prevention program is far more cost effective than allowing these teens to become products of the juvenile justice system. The costs of juvenile homes and incarceration are ever increasing. According to the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, in Virginia the total cost to hold one juvenile in a detention facility or detention home is more than $100,000.5 Since the inception of CYCLE in 2002, 676 teens have graduated. If the program’s message reaches only one or two of those students, the financial savings are still tremendous compared with the cost of sending those one or two teens to a detention facility.

Program Funding

The VPCF offers the program at no cost to the teens or their families. Instead, the foundation relies upon the support of police agencies, businesses, concerned citizens, and public and private grants to fund the program, as well as fund-raisers and raffles to raise awareness and financial support for CYCLE. Many CYCLE students would not have been able to attend if they had been required to pay all or even part of the expenses.

The foundation continually seeks grants and donations to help cover the costs of this program so that it may continue to offer the program to students at no charge. As the VCPF is a U.S. Internal Revenue Service–designated 501(c)(3) organization, charitable donations to it are tax deductible to the extent allowed by law.

Conclusion

As the old adage states, “If you are not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Clearly, CYCLE and similar youth programs are not the only solution, but they can still address the problem—and provide a worthwhile opportunity for these teens. If responsible parties try nothing to stem the tide of school violence, then no progress will be made against this frightening trend. Perhaps there is no single answer to solving the dilemma of school violence, guns in school, and student driven rampages on school campuses. As Lerner points out in his article,

It is important to understand what factors may be causing school-based tragedies. Similarly, it would be helpful to comprehend the ideation [thoughts] of people who make disturbing threats. Ultimately, research will help us to understand the causative factors and the effects of specific interventions. However, like many events in a rapidly shifting zeitgeist, we must take initial thoughtful, realistic, and logical steps to respond to the problems that we are facing in our schools by developing effective prevention and response strategies.6

If society can give teens better tools to manage their own self-esteem and accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions, and if it can provide opportunities for increased communication, cooperation with authority figures, and unlocking their leadership potential, it may be possible to deescalate or even prevent future incidentsof school violence. Although the VCPF cannot be certain that Virginia’s CYCLE program directly prevents violence in schools, it is clear that Virginia’s police chiefs have the courage, wisdom, and vision to invest in teens’ well-being by proactively seeking solutions to curb this disturbing trend.■

Lex Eckenrode is the chief executive officer of the VPCF, a charitable and educational foundation established in 1993 to provide leadership education and law enforcement training, offer scholarship programs, develop partnerships, and sponsor community outreach programs for Virginia’s youth. Prior to his tenure at VPCF, Eckenrode spent 29 years as Virginia’s director of peace officer standards and training, retiring in 1999 as deputy director of the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.


Notes:

1Mark D. Lerner, “Preventing School Violence and Reducing the Frequency of Disturbing Threats,” Trauma Response (Fall–Winter 2000), American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress Web site, October 21, 2006, http://www.aaets.org/article107.htm (accessed August 18, 2007).
2Ibid.
3Ibid.
4“Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice FY 2006 Statistical Information,” Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice Web site, http://www.djj.state.va.us/About_Us/Administrative_Units/Research_and_Evaluation_Unit/DJJ_Statistics_FY2006.pdf (accessed August 18, 2007).
5Ibid.
6Lerner, “Preventing School Violence.”

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From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 10, October 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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