American Psychological Foundation

In 2000, Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood had one of the nation’s highest murder rates. Then the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention at the University of Illinois at Chicago launched a violence prevention program called CeaseFire in the neighborhood, and a year later, shootings in West Garfield Park had dropped by 67 percent.

CeaseFire relies on public education slogans — such as “Don’t shoot. I want to grow up.” — and conflict mediation and community mobilization. The program is now used in 22 American cities. A three-year review by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2009 found that it reduced shootings from 16 percent to 34 percent and eliminated retaliatory murders.

Now, with the help of a $20,000 American Psychological Foundation Violence Prevention and Intervention grant, University of Illinois at Chicago psychologist Elena D. Quintana, PhD, and research specialist Elise Wisnieski are studying whether CeaseFire can be as effective inside high schools, specifically a public school in Chicago’s West Garfield Park. CeaseFire’s workers had intervened multiple times at the school, including once when a teacher was beaten by a group of female students.

Fifty students determined to be at highest risk for being shot or shooting someone — gang members, students who have served jail time or carried weapons — meet regularly with Joshua Brooks, an outreach worker who has been recruited from the neighborhood and trained in conflict mediation, parent communication, suicide prevention and spotting domestic violence. Brooks talks to them individually and in groups about how to steer clear of peer conflict and helps students resolve disagreements before they turn violent. He also helps students find after-school jobs and intervenes with administrators on their behalf when, for example, a bad situation at home leads to a school suspension, says Quintana.

“School is ultimately the safest place for these kids,” says Quintana. “The fact that he can communicate those types of details to the school is key for getting these kids in a position where they can successfully join the mainstream and complete high school.”

In addition, graduate-level social work interns offer workshops on such topics as how to craft a resume and how to have healthy, nonviolent relationships.

“We try to change the norm,” adds Quintana. “So in places where violence is normally an accepted way to deal with conflict, we put another alternative out there through day-to-day contact.”

Quintana and Wisnieski will use the data they are gathering to help fine-tune CeaseFire for use in other schools. So far, their preliminary data show that students who participate in the program are less likely to skip school and have higher grade point averages, says Wisnieski.

“Without the support they need, these students can’t stay off suspension long enough to go through school,” she says. “The fact that they are earning more credits is highly protective for them. Each year you can stay in school, your chance of going to prison or getting arrested is exponentially decreased.”

APF funds violence prevention and intervention research through its Visionary Grants; the next deadline is March 15.