Public Health Professor dissects causes of youth violence in Baltimore

By YANNI GU | November 21, 2019

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Administrators in the Baltimore City Public Schools district office oversee student conduct.

Alpha Phi Omega (APO), the University’s only co-ed community service fraternity, invited Assistant Professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health Vanya Jones to give a speech on youth violence on Nov. 14. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the second and third leading causes of death for the one to 25 age group are violence and unintentional injuries, such as car accidents.

“So we have some issues when we think about using violence to solve problems among, what we would consider, the most productive members of our society,” Jones said.

When asked about the purpose of this talk, senior Michelle Guo, vice president of Leadership at APO, said in an interview with The News-Letter that it is meant to inform the volunteers’ service experiences.

“We bring in outside speakers to improve our brothers’ understanding of what Baltimore is like and to work with our partners better,” Guo said.

APO partners with many different organizations and local schools to better serve the Baltimore community through their volunteering trips and educational workshops, such as the Youth Violence and Public Health in Baltimore talk.

In an interview with The News-Letter after the talk, junior and Public Health major Amy Guo talked about the importance of participating in APO events and being educated on the community issues. 

“Being a student in Baltimore, you are more aware of the circumstances. But sometimes you forget about it just living in the Hopkins bubble. [The talk] brought my attention to the educational system and how some of the different aspects influence youth violence,” she said.

In Baltimore City, the percentage of high school students carrying guns to school is lower than the national average. 

According to Jones, that is good news because mass school shootings are rare in Baltimore. For the two shootings that did happen, neither of them were by a student. Instead, they were both by adults from the community outside of the schools.

However, the bad news is that the young people are engaging at high rates in all kinds of other violence, especially physical fighting.

When viewing the problem of youth violence from a public health perspective, Jones introduced the ecological model of injury risk in adolescence to approach the issue through different levels. 

The first is the individual. The strategy to reduce youth violence is for the individual student to employ certain skills so that they are able to resolve issues using words instead of physical fights.

One of the intervention techniques in helping youth to control their behavior is to have them identify their physiological responses when they are angry.

“If you don’t know to think of those things as a response to something and that is a cue for you, you don’t always know that you could use that as a tool,” Jones said.

The next level is family. Almost all parents want their children to be safe and to learn at school. However, they live in a dangerous environment. A lot of the problems among youth arise from their lack of ability to identify when it is okay to become physical and protect themselves and when it is better to resolve a problem with words. 

One thing that Jones and her colleagues are working on is to help parents clearly communicate with their children in order to guide them in different situations. If parents clarify what they want their children to do in different situations starting at a young age, it will establish a more appropriate sense of social behavior.

A teenager in Baltimore City interacts with more than just their family members. They are engaged on a community or organizational level, which is the next level to approach in the ecological model.

“I think part of what we’re struggling with is how young people perceive themselves and perceive their community. And that happens at the organizational level,” Jones said. 

That includes everything and everyone with which the students interact on a daily basis: teachers, mentors, coaches, pediatricians and so on.

According to Jones, one of the issues that arises constantly from the community for students is that the Baltimore school district does not have a bus system. This means that students taking the city transportation are unsupervised. Unsurprisingly, that is the time during which most youth violence occurs.

Realizing that the root of youth violence is a lack of supervision, Jones advocates strongly against school suspension.

“The last thing you need to do for a kid who got into a fight is to send them home unsupervised,” Jones said.

Jones believes that a way to approach this issue is to see how the school system can change in order to prevent the amount of unsupervised time for students.

“How do we show kids, ‘I see you, I pay attention to you, the behavior you do is important to me’?” Jones asked.

The answer to that question lies in changes on the macro level. It involves policy changes and guidelines and rules which are out of our control. Everything we do happens in the context of policy changes.

In an interview with The News-Letter, Jones addressed the issue of how to motivate local Baltimore students to take advantage of resources that will potentially help them in the long run. 

“The idea is what you can do to help him think through resilience in programs that may or may not have served him well in the past, or other people who have gone through it and what it looked like for them. Sometimes it’s just understanding what the process looks like,” she said.

Jones went on to say that personal motivation and self-belief are two other critical factors in the process of turning away from violent behaviors. 

“Fundamentally, in a behavior change, I have to think I can do it, and I have to think that it can make my life better. Those are the things that are critical for anybody to do anything, including these young people,” she continued. 

Jones mentioned that it is critical for the process to come in bite-size steps, and it will be slow. However, it takes time for a community to change and improve fundamentally.

Ending the talk on an inspiring note, Jones noted that service activities which assist Baltimore City residents and organizations are valuable and can affect widespread change. 

“What you’re doing now is going to set our country, or set the world, if you will, into its next stage,” she said. 

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