Urban neighborhoods are infamous for their high crime rates. Violence in these societies has detrimental effects on every member of the community, but especially those who are the most susceptible to negative influences—youths. In 2009, 76% of urban youths reported having been exposed to some community violence. However, experience with violence has also allowed a number of youths in urban communities to adopt diverse methods of coping with their environment. A University of Chicago study explored how youths respond to the violence in their communities through a series of in-depth interviews. The participants were all minorities—32 boys and girls from neighborhoods in Chicago, ranging from 14 to 17 years old. Most of the participants were not from low-income homes and reported at least one of their parents having some college education. Regardless of these minute differences, their coping methodologies were similar.
The youths described their neighborhoods, their experiences with violence, and finally, how they coped with it. Some correlations that were discovered were: males were more likely than females to witness and be victims of community violence and that females were more likely than males to spend afterschool hours at home. The principal forms of violence that the youths reported being exposed to were fighting, physical attacks, incidents involving police, and gun violence which culminated in murders. One participant described watching a friend die in front of him with the dying boy’s pregnant girlfriend also present. The youths even recounted violent happenings they had heard about from others.
The study also illuminated the relationship between youths and police officers—most of the participants tended to distrust them. The male participants reported being stopped and questioned by police, seeing police chasing and shooting at community residents, and police coming into their homes to arrest their family members. One of the researchers said, “A noteworthy and unique finding, which has not been commonly discussed in prior research, is exposure to police incidents as a form of community violence exposure.”
The youths tended to cope by associating with people in their neighborhoods who were not a part of the violence. They also avoided situations where it was possible that violence would erupt, often by isolating themselves. Other techniques included resigning to their situation or learning to fight back or carry a gun. However, for a quarter of the youths, their best coping method was trying their best in school. They rationalized that achievement in school was their ticket to a better future—they would be able to get a good job and perhaps move to a safer neighborhood.
Based on the results of the study, the researchers recommend that schools should provide more counseling opportunities for youths. This would reduce the symptoms of distress associated with violence. Furthermore, schools should work with the communities to reduce gang activity and the availability of guns. Although violence is in abundance in urban communities, there are many steps local governments and schools can take together to reduce it. It is a fight that both entities must learn to tackle together and not independently.
Betty Diop (Re:LIFE Writer/Columnist)
B.A. Applied Psychology