• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 30th June, 2009

Blueprints emerge from Columbine wreckage

Crisis can become a catalyst for considered change. That has been the experience of Del Elliott, editor and founder of the premier database on effective violence prevention programs, Blueprints.On Tuesday 20th April, a decade ago, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into their school in Columbine, Colorado and killed 12 of their fellow students and one teacher. Another 24 were injured. Harris and Klebold then committed suicide.The massacre instigated lots of debates. The availability of firearms - including a pump-action shot gun and explosives - to two adolescent boys was naturally a focus of attention. The role of the internet was another. Harris had created a website on which he blogged about how to make a bomb and how much trouble he and Klebold were prepared to cause.Medication was another point of discussion. Harris had been referred to a consultant psychiatrist and was prescribed the anti-depressants Zoloft and Luvox.In many ways speculation was futile. For all the rights and wrongs about US gun laws, most young people with a firearm would never dream of using it on a fellow student. The most irrational bloggers are highly unlikely to turn their fantasies into reality. And there is no scientific link between medication for emotional disorders and the extraordinary violence meted out by Harris and Klebold.There was at the time an emerging consensus about the kinds of risks - for young children - that lead to aggression and violence in adolescence. Boys from poor families with a parent prone to violence were far more likely to continue along this trajectory. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did not fit this profile. They came from ‘good families’ and were relatively well off. They were liked by their teachers and other children until they went into middle and high school.Some children, on the other hand, are not drawn into violence and aggression until they reach their teens, and for them the risks are different. It is less to do with heritable traits and more with how well children are cared for and the role of their peer group. This is where Harris and Klebold did fit the pattern. The evidence for different trajectories of violence was later enshrined in the US Surgeon General’s report of 2001 (Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General). But what to do about it?The challenge was to discover what worked to reduce these risks, and what helped protect kids from their damaging effects. Mapping out the BlueprintsRather than trying to eradicate high school massacres, Elliott made a tactical decision to pursue a more public health approach, to reduce aggression and violence in schools more broadly. Too much choice was the initial problem. Elliott and his team unearthed over 700 programs that claimed to reduce aggression, violence and other anti-social behavior in young people. But four-fifths had no credible evaluation. And most of those that had been rigorously evaluated did not make an impact on children's behavior. There were also those, like Scared Straight, that were actually harmful or DARE, which is expensive and simply doesn’t work. One of Blueprint’s major contributions has been to define what proves an intervention is effective. The website gives a much more detailed explanation but essentially interventions must have been shown to make an impact by at least two evaluations, one independent of the program developer. They demand that evaluations show a statistically significant positive effect for at least a year after the intervention ends and ideally use a randomized controlled design. Attention to potential side effects and threats to internal validity is also part of the equation.The result is a database containing 11 model programs and 19 promising ones, as well as information on implementation issues. They hold a conference in Denver every other year bringing together over 1,000 like-minded scientists and practitioners. There have been campus killings since Columbine, and there will be more in the future. But Elliott’s work has done more than most to reduce the risk of such events. A by-product has been to find ways of lessening aggressive and violent behavior by all school children. Elliott brings Columbine lessons to UKThis week Elliott brings the lessons of the last decade to England and Ireland. Today he will be presenting to the annual Brighter Futures conference in Birmingham. Brighter Futures is a 5-year strategy by the city council to improve outcomes for children through prevention and early intervention in the UK’s second city. He then moves on to Belfast where he will be addressing an audience from community partnership Together4All.He ends is trip in London on Thursday where he will be giving an expert seminar for policy makers and academics at the House of Commons, before his keynote presentation at the Social Research Unit’s annual lecture later that day.

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