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UNC center to continue work on curbing youth violence and making schools safer

A UNC center created to help curb youth violence in Robeson County has been tapped as the research partner for a new initiative to reduce bullying, aggression, and victimization in middle and high schools; enhance student mental health and keep juvenile offenders out of the school-to-prison pipeline.

The N.C. Academic Center for Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention (NC-ACE)—a collaboration of UNC’s School of Social Work and the Injury Prevention Research Center—will partner with a total of two dozen schools in Columbus and Robeson counties to examine the impact of teen courts on school safety. Columbus County Schools was awarded a nearly $1.5 million grant from the National Institute of Justice to support the three-year research project.

School of Social Work Research Professor Paul Smokowski and his research team, including current doctoral students, Carey Robertson and Katie Cotter, Center Coordinator Jim Barbee and Research Assistant Professor Roderick Rose, will help to oversee and evaluate the new school safety initiative.

The project is an extension of the work that NC-ACE began in Robeson County four years ago, said Smokowski, NC-ACE director and currently a distinguished professor at Arizona State University. Smokowski helped launch the youth violence prevention center with support from a five-year $6.5 million grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

NC-ACE is one of six CDC-funded centers around the country and was established in Robeson County because it is one of the most ethnically diverse and among the poorest counties in the state and because its residents continue to struggle with violent crime. Robeson has consistently ranked first in juvenile arrest rates, and its youth death rate has been nearly double the state average.

Over the past four years, NC-ACE has helped the county tackle these issues by promoting violence prevention programs in middle and high schools, including those that enhance parent-teen relationships and teach youth conflict mediation skills. The center also has had success with community teen courts, Smokowski said.

The courts, which are often used to empower youth, give first-time juvenile offenders the chance to resolve their disciplinary problems within an alternative court of their peers and make amends to those they have harmed. The idea is to divert youth offenders from the traditional justice system, offer them life skills training and community service, and help them stay out of trouble.

Thus far, of the 257 juveniles who have participated in the Robeson County teen courts, 95 percent have not reoffended, Smokowski said.

“Violent behavior and aggressive behavior and teen conflicts with their parents and delinquency have also decreased over time,” he said.

With the new initiative, the hope is that these same youth courts will work just as well within the schools, he said. If successful, the model could ultimately save taxpayers a lot of money. Currently, it costs about $2,000 to support one youth who enters the juvenile justice system—four times the amount that it costs to divert one youth to a teen court program, Smokowski said.

“And if you can save one child from going into group-based care, that’s $16,000 per year in savings,” he added. “So, in the long run, if we can bring down those rates of delinquency through teen courts, we can save money through the juvenile justice system and close this school-to-prison pipeline that we’re all worried about.”