CDC program to fight violence in teen-agers Durham is host for tutoring plan

April 30, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

DURHAM, N.C. -- On the tough streets of Durham, not far from the Gothic towers of Duke University, a national fight soon begins against teen-age violence.

There, with funding from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black professional men will try to persuade black teen-age boys to ignore the example set by drug dealers and TV hooligans and follow their example instead.

"What we're saying is, 'Your manhood should not be found when you pick up a gun and shoot somebody,' " said Arnold Dennis, director of the Durham County juvenile detention center. "Your manhood is more than physical attributes and how bad you are.' "

There's so much violence, the CDC considers it a public health problem.

As with smallpox and heart disease, the federal agency is working on ways to reduce the problem -- and it chose Durham teen-agers as one test group. The CDC will study results of a mentoring program for teen-agers called Rites of Passage.

In the program, black men will tutor teen-age boys in African-American history and self-esteem, conflict resolution and decision-making, and possibly help them get jobs.

The CDC will analyze how the program affects teen-age violence.

"We've basically ignored violence as a public health issue," said Jennifer Friday, a behavioral scientist and psychologist with the tTC CDC in Atlanta. "We've not really evaluated programs in any systematic way to see what works."

Other prevention programs in the nation will focus on early intervention.

"It's clear that trying to intervene in early childhood is the way to go," Ms. Friday said. "Once a child gets to a preteen, preadolescent stage, some of their patterns of interacting have already been set, either observing what their parents do or people in the neighborhood do. Violence breeds violence."

Add to that the prevalence of guns, and the result is deadly.

Gunshot wounds are the leading cause of death in American teen-age boys. In 1985, 2,498 youngsters from ages 15 to 19 were killed with firearms, compared with 4,173 in 1990, an increase of 67 percent. The number of black males killed with firearms more than doubled, from 643 to 1,640.

In Durham, Rites of Passage wants to expose black teen-agers to another way of life. They often grow up poor, amid drugs and violence, without encouragement or respect.

"First of all we're working on letting them understand the world around them, understand we're expecting certain kinds of behavior from them," Mr. Dennis said.

"We're constantly pumping information at them, just like other things coming at them -- like television -- they're also getting it from us. This is not a panacea. But if we do nothing else during that six-month period except keep these kids out of trouble. . .

"In this day and age, you cannot leave raising children to chance. You can't say, 'They'll learn.' What they'll learn, you'll be sorry. They're exposed to ideas and television that they're not able to emotionally process."

Teen-agers aren't necessarily more aggressive these days, said Dr. John Lochlan, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at Duke University. But because of guns, a disagreement that might have ended in a fistfight 10 years ago now ends in a gun battle.

"They begin to lose some of the prohibitions against extreme violence because it's become somewhat common," Dr. Lochlan said. "There are some of these aggressive kids who know they're being aggressive, and they're being aggressive for a certain, clear end like they want to rob somebody or they want to intimidate other people.

"These kids are kind of cool, they're not inflamed by anger at the time of incident. They know what they're doing. The problem for them is more that they have come to believe that aggressive behavior will lead to relatively good outcome. They don't anticipate a high level of punishment.

"More commonly, kids that ultimately engage in very violent acts wind up getting into a certain situation where they feel provoked. They get very angry, become very impulsive, act quickly.

"If they happen to have a weapon, that's how they handle anger and a perceived threat. For those kinds of kids, it looks like they didn't get into the situation purposely planning to shoot someone. Because of the anger and the heat of the moment, they wind up using a gun."

Larry King, executive director of Charlotte's Council for Children, said people should be concerned but not surprised.

"In many ways, we conditioned and trained them," he said. "I'm not condoning what kids do. I'm not sure but that society is as much a criminal as the child is -- for giving him an opportunity to be exposed to that most of his life."

For information on Rite of Passage, call Arnold Dennis at (919)

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