American scholar about battling youth criminality: “Focus on at-risk-youth engagement”

POSTED: 06/3/14 12:15 AM

St. Maarten – Dr. Kornel A. Brown, an international education and training consultant, and a post-doctoral scholar at the Department of Adult and continuing Education at the College of Arts and Sciences at the National Louis University in Chicago, scrutinized Today’s archives online after he paid a visit to the island recently to conduct professional development workshops for teachers. He found an article we published on January 4 on our opinion page about youth criminality. That inspired him to write the following article, that we offer here to our readers unabridged.

“I was exploring the online archives of the Today Newspaper and came across a very interesting opinion titled “Youth criminality”. Same was posted on January 4, 2014. In the article, the writer initiated by accurately pointing out that street robberies are not unique to St. Maarten, and cited examples of similar occurrences in the Netherlands.  Indeed, the ease with which information is shared across this 21st century global village makes us all aware of the fact that youth involvement in criminality is an unfortunate global reality.

Perhaps the most profound, and most frightening, revelation in the article is the declaration by the writer that “most street robbers have not even reached the age of 15 and they go after senior citizens, their peers and other easy victims for wallets, phones and handbags. Sometimes they use verbal or physical violence. In St. Maarten, more often than not, they use a gun they conveniently found in the bushes.”

My initial reaction when I read this aspect of the posted opinion was, “Why is this sounding so familiar!” This almost automatic reaction is triggered by my having, for the past 10 years, heard similar stories coming out of other Caribbean islands, as well as the USA, the UK and elsewhere. In some of the many instances that I am aware of, the youth participants in such forms of criminality are as young as age 12.  Certainly, when the situation is analyzed on an international basis, it is reasonable to conclude that young youth participating in criminality has become an unfortunate new normal, globally.

Like St. Maarten, many nations continue to grapple with finding best-practice solutions for combatting this worrying phenomenon. I am certainly in agreement with public sentiments that urgent steps must be taken to protect communities from all forms of criminality. Often times, individuals who call for actions on the part of government tend to focus narrowly on police or military style interventions.

In the city of Chicago, for example, there have been calls for the State National Guard to be called out to curtail the spate of violent crimes involving youth gangs in certain communities. Certainly, the members of the police or military have the tools and the training to move in and bring situations under control. Indeed, there are times when we do need such temporary measures. However, police and military style interventions certainly cannot be the long-term solution for responding to the devious behavioral patterns that impressionable minded youth have accepted, passively, as their way of living.

In addition to the “bringing under control measures”, there is urgent need for a sustained developmental solution; with youth transformation as a priority. Accordingly, the mission to find such a solution must give recognition to key factors, such as the fact that the youth involved in criminality in many communities are themselves products of those communities. Secondly, the youth would have passed, even partially, through the formal system of education, which we consider to be a socialization process.

The million-dollar question therefore is: how did they manage to escape being socialized by the very structured educational process? Recognition must also be given to the need to invest serious efforts towards identifying the factors that directly or tacitly divert youth into criminality. Furthermore,awareness must be gained as to exactly what, if anything, are the common factors among communities, internationally, that are experiencing moderate to high incidents of youth criminality.

Ideally, the way to combat youth criminality is to implement and sustain a vibrant youth development framework. This has to begin with recognizing sustained youth development as a priority area, relative to national development. Importantly, a key tenet of such a framework must be the design and delivery, in schools and communities, of interventions aimed at capacitating youth with the values that will insulate them against acquiring the mindset that propels them into criminality. Central to the framework, as well, must be the capacitating of educators to detect and engage with at-risk-youth.

We know from research that there are specific warning signs exhibited by an individual leading up to the point that his/her negative behavior is concretized. Certainly, the educational process must be capable of intervening at the at-risk stage and redirecting the mind of the youth. My depiction of at-risk-youth is consistent with the well-established socio-cultural connotation for which the terminology is well known. By way of definition, at-risk-youth speaks to a youngster whose behavior is deemed to be potentially dangerous to his/her, or others, health, safety, and/or welfare.

It is in the best interest of communities that measures be employed, first and foremost, to prevent youth from becoming at-risk of engaging in criminality. In the event they have entered into the at-risk zone, communities must have the tools to detect and redirect them from a life of criminality. I am not suggesting that it will be possible to prevent all youth from surpassing the at-risk stage, but just like cancer, early detection might be the best cure.

If and when they transition into criminality, an even greater demand is placed on the community not just to contain or control their actions, but also to compensate and to reassure the victims of the criminal actions.

My call, therefore, is for at-risk-youth engagement to become a core component of the overall educational process. Educators, especially those at the primary and secondary educational levels, must acquire the competencies to engage at-risk-youth. Essential to meaningful at-risk-youth engagement is to have an informed awareness of the behavioral norms associated with at-risk-youth, the underpinning root causes of such norms, as well as a grounded understanding the appropriate how-to strategies for responding effectively.

 

What can be done with respect to the youth who has already surpassed the at-risk-stage? Per story carried in the September 13, 2012, edition of the Today Newspaper, Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams called for the navy to play a lead role in equipping jobless youth with employability skills. This is indeed the kind of thinking that supports sustainable positive youth development. Community policing, apprentice programs, mentorship programs… are similar good examples.

Why are these kinds of initiatives important? Youth transformation has to be values-driven. The negative behavioral patterns that are portrayed by a youth are, collectively, a corollary of deep rooted negative values. Meaningful transformation must target and transform negative values/roots in order for the negative behavior to modify. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to establish and sustain a relationship between the youth and an entity, like the navy, that is driven by positive values. A youth enrolled in a development intervention run by the navy will, over time, experience an unfreezing and uprooting of his/her held negative values. Ultimately, the positive values will take root and will exert influence on behavior.

The theoretical explanation here is that when the values we hold,as human beings (however we came by them), no longer allow us to function comfortably in a present reality, we tend to acquire those values that will ensure our survival. The indirect, but a most valuable lesson linked to the PM’s position is to put the youth in situations that will render their negative values irrelevant, thereby creating a fertile ground for positive values to flourish. This is certainly in context with positive and meaningful youth engagement.”

 

 

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