“Getting To Chicago’s Boys Before Gangs Do…”

Chicago youth violence prevention makes Morning Edition

(This column is cross-posted at the Century Foundation’s Taking Note)

My kids may wonder what I do at work in the morning. Seeing these forbidding pictures of my colleague Tony DiVittorio, they might be a bit scared to find out.

Today’s Morning Edition had a nice story by Cheryl Corley about BAM Sports Edition, a school-based prevention intervention fielded by two local nonprofit organizations, Youth Guidance and World Sport Chicago. Tony originated the intervention. I and my colleagues at the University of Chicago Crime Lab spent much of the past two years helping to field and evaluate this intervention. My craggy voice can be heard for a few seconds, too. NPR did a nice job explaining what BAM is trying to do. Unfortunately, NPR didn’t give World Sport’s component the same attention. I hope Ms. Corley comes back for more.

We’ll release outcome findings in the near future. Without prejudging these analyses, I’ll take this moment to say how proud I am of these two organizations. They successfully executed a very demanding intervention on an incredibly tight budget and timeline in the challenging environment of fifteen Chicago public schools. Having to field this intervention within the parameters of a rigorous effectiveness trial doesn’t make things any easier. A remarkable group of social workers, youth counselors, former olympians and olympic coaches, managers, funders, and graduate students made this happen.

It’s no secret that Chicago has a serious youth violence problem. BAM Sports Edition operated at some of the toughest schools in a tough city. We’ll examine how well this specific intervention achieved its stated goals. Of course, no one program or intervention will eliminate youth violence. The naïve search for the next home run–Perry Preschool, say—is harmful when it leads people to denigrate useful incremental efforts. We know right now that rigorously evaluated, evidence-based interventions can make a difference.

We also know, sadly, that such efforts are under serious financial threat posed by the state and local budget crisis. The crisis is worsening by developments in the federal budget. House Republicans have proposed vastly excessive cuts to immunization, education, youth employment, law enforcement, and other core activities to promote public health and safety. Across the nation, policymakers, schools, and nonprofit agencies are scrambling, deciding who to hire or fire, what can be done this summer. Everyone is waiting for the federal budget negotiation to be resolved. Everyone realizes that it won’t end well.

This is no way to make public policy. This is no way to prevent youth violence. This is also no way to treat the dedicated men and women at nonprofit organizations such as Youth Guidance and World Sport Chicago. They work hard to serve kids who need help. Too often, their work is hindered by the dysfunctional processes and misguided priorities of American politics.

One more thing: the next time you hear someone denigrate social work as a profession, send them a link to this report.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.