• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Tuesday 03rd March, 2015

From Safe Dates to safer states: re-assessing ways to prevent youth violence

strong>Devising new and better interventions is not always the answer to intractable social problems like youth violence and weapon carrying. Sometimes it is important to look more carefully at existing initiatives – as demonstrated by a re-assessment of the Safe Dates program.Developing new programs can be expensive and becomes harder to do in straitened economic times. So it is hardly surprising that there is increased interest in identifying “cross-cutting” prevention strategies that will be effective in targeting a range of behavioral problems, rather than just one.In America, this “two birds with one stone” approach has gained increasing prominence as a preventive response to different aspects of youth violence where contributing risk factors overlap. Funding for youth violence research is limited, yet statistics suggest 600,000 young people in the US receive hospital treatment for assault-related injuries each year, while homicide remains the second biggest killer of youth aged 15-24. Old data re-visitedPositive evaluations of Safe Dates, a school-based program for preventing dating abuse have led to its adoption in all 50 US states and internationally in countries that include Australia, Canada, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands and the UK. Nevertheless, researchers at the University of North Carolina who published results from the first randomized controlled trial in 2005 have usefully revisited their data to assess the program’s effectiveness in preventing other types of violence. Safe Dates consists of a student-performed play about date violence, a ten-session curriculum and a poster competition based on the program’s lessons. For the original evaluation it was assessed through data gathered from 1,886 13 to 15-year olds (8th and 9th graders) at public schools in eastern North Carolina. Whole classes were randomly assigned to take part in the program or a non-participating control group. The researchers not only gathered data on the incidence of violence among dating couples, but also young people’s experiences of peer violence (both as victim or perpetrator) and of carrying guns and other weapons to school. The students who took part were followed up regularly (with low levels of attrition) for four years after the program was administered.Reasons for believing the intervention would have cross-cutting preventive effects included structural similarities between dating abuse and peer violence, the similarity of the prevention strategies applied by Safe Dates to those used in other violence prevention programs and similarities between the contexts in which dating and peer violence occur. Mostly promising resultsBut while the re-analysis results were undoubtedly promising, they were not positive across the board. At one-year follow-up, measurements of peer violence victimization scored 12 per cent lower among the Safe Dates participants than the control group. In addition, there was an impressive 31 per cent less weapon carrying among those who took part in the program compared with the control group. However, when it came to the perpetration of peer violence, positive effects were limited to minority youth participating in the program (23 per cent lower than the controls). There was no equivalent, significant effect among white students. Exploratory investigation of the effects among black students (the largest minority group in the study) also found that a strong effect on perpetrator violence was confined to young women (43 per cent less than the control group), with no significant effect among young men. Looking for explanations, the researchers suggest the stronger effects found among minority adolescents could be related to higher base rates of involvement in perpetrating violence measured before the program started – making significant change more likely. The sex differences found among black students could be due, in part, to having a smaller number of boys (120) than girls (164) in the study.More generally, the peer violence and victimization measurements in the study related to violence between peers of roughly the same age and same sex. They may have, consequently underestimated the overall prevalence of violence, decreasing the power of the re-analysis to detect significant effects. As a further limitation, the design of the original experiment made it difficult for the researchers to conclude how the program had affected violence outcomes. This was because the relevant risk factors and mediators were measured in a way that was specific to dating abuse scenarios. In addition, the study took place in a largely rural area, so the results might not generalize to inner city schools where violence is likely to be more common. But while the re-analysis results are inconclusive about whether Safe Dates can reduce the perpetration of peer violence among white youth, its positive overall effects in preventing victimization and weapon carrying add to the existing reasons why schools and service planners might choose to adopt it as a prevention program. As the researchers observe: “With increasing school burdens and decreasing resources, implementation of Safe Dates may be an efficient way to prevent multiple types of youth violence.”There is, nevertheless, a need for the program’s effects on violence to be investigated using measures that can better explain how it works – and why it may work better with some groups than others. If it is confirmed that subgroups and subcultures react in different ways to the intervention, it could still be tailored to particular needs. *********Reference:Foshee, V.A., Reyes, L.M., Agnew-Brune, C.B., Simon, T.R., Vagi, K.J., Lee, R.D., & Suchindran, C. (2014). The Effects of the Evidence-Based Safe Dates Dating Abuse Prevention Program on Other Youth Violence Outcomes. Prevention Science, 15, 907-916.

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