A Rutgers-led interdisciplinary team is studying whether tailored success plans and specially designed after-school activities can prevent at-risk Newark youngsters from engaging in violent behavior.
Supported by a $175,000 grant from the Office of the New Jersey Attorney General, Rutgers faculty and local community partners, social services, medical and mentoring agencies are developing individualized success plans to change the attitudes and outlooks of 50 middle school youngsters living within the city’s highest crime areas. The plans will include provisions for physical and mental health treatment and focus on school attendance, mentoring, parental education and support, after-school activities and career exploration.
“With youth violence you can’t have Band-Aids,” says Felesia Bowen, assistant professor and director of the Center for Urban Youth and Families at Rutgers School of Nursing, who received the grant. “The Band-Aids are not working. We are still having problems. We need to get down to the root causes.”
Newark has the most crime, both violent and nonviolent, among all New Jersey municipalities, according to the most recent New Jersey Uniform Crime Report. Of 114 “strong arm” crimes (involving the use of hands and fists) recorded in Newark from January through September this year, 40 were reported as juvenile offenses, committed by 10- to 17-year-olds. Of 110 crimes involving firearms, 20 were reportedly committed by juveniles.
The pilot project, known as Brick City Synergy, addresses youth violence as if it were a public health disease. “Youth violence affects all facets of society,” she says. “People are dying and children are going to jail. In healthcare, when we find a problem, we develop a treatment plan. We’ve said these youngsters need success plans. Let’s develop them.”
The initiative intends to demonstrate that by channeling youngsters’ and parents’ energies toward positive outcomes, the youngsters, ages 9 to 14, will learn to avoid mimicking criminal and violent behavior they’ve often observed in their neighborhoods.
“We’re not trying to become their parents, but to provide the tools and resources to strengthen parenting,” says Kenneth Karamichael, director of Rutgers Transitional Education and Employment Management (T.E.E.M.) Gateway, who is co-directing Brick City Synergy with Bowen. “We’re interested in connecting their positive energies.”
Karamichael, whose T.E.E.M. organization has helped approximately 7,500 at-risk youths, judges success with disconnected, floundering teens by their level of engagement in activities and friendships that can deter them from violent behavior. “We want to teach each of them to ask themselves every day, ‘How am I going to fill my day?,’ and share their responses with their families so that they can understand how that might impact positive or negative behavior,” Karamichael says.
The Brick City Synergy project will rely on teachers, community leaders, police and parents to recommend youths who have significant absenteeism records or behavioral issues. After they are assessed, each youngster, along with parents or guardians, will receive an individualized plan, including such goals as no unexcused school absences or police encounters, participation in an after-school mentoring program and using a family community resources guide, which Karamichael is developing using the T.E.E.M. model.
Brick City Synergy is being managed by the Center for Urban Youth and Families. Bowen will head the project’s health and research components, Karamichael the directory development and delinquency prevention activities.
In addition, the Brick City Synergy team includes Paul Boxer, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University-Newark; Lori Scott-Pickens, director of community outreach at Rutgers School of Criminal Justice; Elizabeth Weisholtz, interim executive director, Newark Mentoring Movement; Jacquelyn Thomas, social services coordinator, Georgia King Village; and Frances Teabout, director of mission, New Community Corp.