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Nation’s first rural youth violence prevention center launches with $6.5 million grant

By Susan White

An interdisciplinary team of UNC researchers, led by School of Social Work Professor Paul Smokowski, Ph.D., has been awarded a nearly $6.5 million federal grant to support a five-year project that includes the creation of a center to provide community support and solutions for preventing and reducing youth violence in Robeson County, N.C.

The North Carolina Academic Center for Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention joins three similar U.S. centers in larger metropolitan areas. Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the centers were established under the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control following the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School.

North Carolina’s center will be the nation’s first rural Youth Violence Prevention Center and will serve one of the most ethnically diverse rural counties in the United States. Robeson County has a majority-minority population; more than 68 percent of the county’s 129,000 residents are Native American, African American and Latino.

The center is a collaborative partnership between the UNC School of Social Work, the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center (IPRC), and community agencies in Robeson County, including the Robeson County Health Department, the nonprofit Center for Community Action, and Public Schools of Robeson County. Smokowski, the project’s principal investigator, will direct the center with help from Co-Directors Natasha K. Bowen, Ph.D., from the School of Social Work, the Rev. Mac Legerton, executive director and founder of the Center for Community Action, and Martica Bacallao, Ph.D., from UNC-Greensboro.

“The point of the center is to combine and build on existing community assets and bring new resources and programs to the county in order to help support the positive development of youth,” Smokowski said. “Increasing community and family resourcefulness is key. Without those resources, youth can lose future prospectives. When youth lose hope, they become more disconnected from family and school, which can lead to other alternatives, such as anti-social behavior.”

To assess the impact of the Center’s activities, researchers will track community and school rates of violence in Robeson County and across the state. The project will also follow 3,000 middle school students – about half of all middle school youth in Robeson County – over five years to compare the students’ development to that of 2,000 similar students in a comparison group from a nearby county.  School of Social Work Professor Shenyang Guo, Ph.D., and Research Professor Dean Duncan, Ph.D., will lead this evaluation.

By focusing on middle-school youth, Smokowski said the project can potentially reach and affect young people before “problems become entrenched.” Research has shown, for example, that dropout rates, alcohol use, and aggressive behavior increase once students reach high school.
“Our goal ultimately is to promote the positive and successful development of middle school adolescents so that they can go on to have bright futures,” Smokowski said.

In the 30 years that he has served the Center for Community Action, Legerton said that he has seen youth violence directly or indirectly affect “almost every family” in his community. According to the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention,  Robeson’s youth death rate of 123.6 per 100,000 people is nearly double the state’s rate of 74.7; Robeson County’s homicide rate of 23.9 per 100,000 is more than triple the State’s average of 7.2 for 2004-2008.

These difficulties, researchers and community partners agreed, are largely a result of the county’s ongoing economic struggles, which have long-created significant hardships for individuals, families and children. Among communities in the South, Robeson County has been on the forefront of increasing poverty brought on by massive job losses. In the last decade alone, the county has lost almost 9,000 manufacturing jobs. Such losses are reflected in the 30.4 percent of residents who, according to the U.S. Census, were living below poverty level in 2008 – more than double the percentage nationwide.

Researchers and community partners will keep these challenges in mind as they begin to work together to first identify the risks that Robeson’s adolescents encounter as well as protective strengths that offer them support. This assessment, which will take place in December, will examine the needs of individuals, families and the community as a whole. Strategies and programs that have shown success in preventing youth violence will then be put into place and evaluated over the remaining project period. For example, programs could include those that help students become more engaged in school and others that strengthen families and lower stress factors that can lead to violence.

For Robeson County residents and community partners, the new center offers some long-awaited hope and is an “example of civic engagement at its best,” Legerton added.

“This project will enable us to develop a deeper understanding of youth violence and to implement interventions that can be assessed so that we can develop successful ways to prevent and reduce youth violence,” he said. “So this is a very hopeful sign that through a strong public private partnership, we will be able to impact our youth and families in very positive ways.”