Teaching teens reduces violence

This week University of Kentucky researchers interjected a note of research-based hope into a landscape that sometimes seems frozen into conflicting views of reality fueled by political division.

UK’s Center for the Prevention of Violence Against Women took the lead in a study published this week that found sexual violence among high-school students decreased significantly when their peers were trained to spot and prevent it.

Incidents of sexual violence decreased by as much as 50 percent in schools that received the training compared to those that didn’t.

That’s huge statistically but also tremendous considering the toll of sexual violence on victims — absenteeism, depression, suicide, substance abuse. As we know in Kentucky, individual pain can translate into enormous societal costs.

Developed at UK, bystander or Green Dot training is used on college campuses but this is the first study of its effectiveness in a high-school setting.

The idea is simple: Use peer influence to make violence unacceptable, and to intervene safely when it threatens.

People learn to spot clearly dangerous or even iffy situations, as well as strategies to diffuse or avoid them. For example, if a couple gets into a shouting match, a friend could try to distract one by suggesting they walk to class together. If violence erupts, they are trained to call a teacher or the police.

Students are also encouraged to to reset the social standard so that hostile words — in person or electronically — aren’t acceptable, much less violent deeds.

Under the $1.6 million, five-year study, funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teachers and staff were trained first; then 10 to 13 percent of students identified as “thought leaders” from various school groups were trained. Each year researchers returned to the schools that received the training and those that didn’t to survey students on whether they’d experienced or committed sexual violence.

By the fifth year, the schools that had training reported 157 incidents of sexual violence, compared to 245 at the control schools.

This tells us that, given the tools, young people can help shift their peers away from tolerating, perpetrating or becoming the victims of violent words and actions.

It also reminds us that thoughtful, research-based approaches, tested scientifically, can, and should, guide us in addressing our most troubling challenges.