Challenging Dogma

...Using social sciences to improve the practice of public health

Saturday, April 21, 2007

G.R.E.A.T. Futility:How a School-Based Violence Prevention Program Fails to Address the Psychosocial Determinants of Gang Involvement-Colleen Leger

While hardly a new phenomenon in post-industrialized American society, youth gangs have propagated widely since the early 1980’s (1). The explosive growth of gangs and gang membership throughout inner-city, suburban, and rural jurisdictions in the U.S over the last few decades has been accompanied by the increased incidence of youth delinquency, violent offending, and victimization (2). Subsequently, it has created a social epidemic that has eclipsed infectious diseases as the primary cause of adolescent morbidity (3). The widespread media attention that has proliferated since the gang ‘epidemic’ emerged in the 80’s has helped facilitate the fusion of gang and pop cultures. In doing so, the media’s frequent and sensational portrayal of gangs and ‘thug’ life has recast social norms in an increasingly aggressive and antisocial context. However, by raising awareness and fueling the public’s fear of predatory and delinquent youth, the media may have also played an influential role in prompting law enforcement agencies to action. As a result, there was a notable resurgence of gang prevention and suppression programs in the 80’s and 90’s, many of which are still implemented today (1). One such prevention program, Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.), has remained vastly popular since its inception in 1991, and continues to receive funding in all 50 states (4). However, the efficacy of the G.R.E.A.T. program is severely compromised by its failure to address the enduring structural and psycho-social contexts that have shaped youth delinquency and perpetuated both community violence and gang ethos.

G.R.E.A.T. in practice?

Incorporated into elementary and middle school curricula (9-13 year olds), G.R.E.A.T consists of thirteen 45-to 60- minute lessons focused on enhancing students’ self-esteem, promoting pro-social behaviors, and developing students’ life and problem-solving skills (5-6). However, as a primary prevention program, G.R.E.A.T. relies too heavily on the health belief model, incorrectly assuming that, through increased awareness and skills-development alone, youth will engage in fewer risk-seeking and anti-social behaviors. G.R.E.A.T. purports that exposing the true relationships linking gangs, drugs, violence and crime, and empowering young people to set achievable goals and to strengthen their decision making processes, youth will be better positioned to avoid delinquent behaviors, violence and gang membership (4). This model of prevention is defective on numerous levels, including the timing, duration, and quality of its curriculum. What G.R.E.A.T fails to appreciate in its very design is what Malcom Klein articulates with great clarity, that:
street gangs are an amalgam of urban underclass poverty, of minority and youth culture, of fatalism in the face of rampant deprivation, of political insensitivity, and the gross ignorance of inner-city (and inner-town) America on the part of most of us who don’t have to live there (7).
Although gangs are no longer exclusively an urban construct, nor is their membership restricted solely to poor minority youth, gang activity still largely and disproportionately pervades low-income, urban communities of color. However, geographic and socio-demographic indicators notwithstanding, gang affiliation more poignantly reflects missed opportunities for normal social development. Programs that seek to prevent and reduce gang activity must do so by first acknowledging the larger structural variables that guide the social trajectory of young people.

Negating learned behaviors—a G.R.E.A.T challenge

The G.R.E.A.T program is fundamentally flawed by its failure to grasp key principles supporting the social learning theory, which may best explain the root causes of youth delinquency and gang involvement. Social learning theory maintains that people become aware of and develop behaviors by observing external behaviors and interactions. Similarly, by observing others, individuals begin to recognize patterned responses (both positive and negative) to different sets of behaviors. Accordingly, individuals will most likely adopt modeled behaviors that are positively reinforced in their communities (8). Furthermore, individuals are likely to perpetuate learned behaviors when they value the responses that are provoked, or when the consequences of the behaviors are otherwise rewarding (8).

As illustrated by the social learning theory, young people (whose identities are particularly malleable) acquire and engage in behaviors to which they have been routinely exposed. Youth may be more inclined to develop behavior patterns and coping mechanisms in response to stressful or challenging stimuli that they have observed others exhibit successfully under like-circumstances (8). For many people who live in economically marginalized, high crime communities, exposure to violence and aggressive behaviors is not uncommon. According to one study, youths’ exposure to violence may be the strongest predictor of whether they engage in acts of violence themselves. Exposure to violence also substantially increased youths’ risk of future gang involvement (9). Furthermore, this study found that of 722 6th graders living in and around public housing, only 1.4% of the students had not directly witnessed or themselves been victims of violent crime (9).

Considering the increased odds of exposure to violence found among urban youth, it is no wonder that many exhibit anti-social behavior and maladaptive coping strategies in the face of stressful or challenging situations. Moreover, aggressive behaviors that are perceived as maladaptive in some settings (school) may be more acceptable in other environments (unstable neighborhoods with high crime rates or pervasive gang activity), where such behaviors are rewarded or reinforced. Similarly, behaviors may be perceived as normative when they are acceptable and predictable within familiar environments, such as families or communities. The familiar environment may also extend to the media, where persistently aggressive and violent images are portrayed (sensationally) on television, in movies and in music videos (9).

Considering the young age at which children begin to adopt modeled behaviors (as observed in their family units, communities, or in the media), it is unlikely that they are fully capable of distinguishing rational from irrational behavior or deviant from socially acceptable conduct. Likewise, it does not seem appropriate to assume that the imitation of modeled behaviors is a deliberate, intended or cognizant action in a child. It seems equally inappropriate that a prevention program aimed at deterring the development of delinquent behaviors should utilize an exclusively cognitive approach.

G.R.E.A.T. Mistakes

The G.R.E.A.T program, which identifies itself as a primary prevention program, attempts to “immunize” students against delinquency, youth violence and gang membership (4). Through discussion, instruction, and role-playing, G.R.E.A.T curriculum uses a cognitive approach to prevent students from developing problematic behaviors and attitudes (10). Students are taught socially acceptable techniques of conflict resolution, about creating an atmosphere of understanding, and about cultural differences and how they affect the school and neighborhood environments (10). Yet, learning about conflict resolution in an artificial environment and demonstrating resistance skills in mock situations is far less meaningful than observing, in a real-life setting, behaviors that are functional (though presumably maladaptive) at achieving goals, improving personal status, or commanding respect. After prolonged exposure to ‘survival’ tactics in unstable communities, children who adopt modeled (maladaptive) behaviors, more likely do so instinctually than cognitively (9).

G.R.E.A.T distinguishes itself from other gang intervention or suppression programs as a primary prevention campaign targeting all children, and not high-risk youth exclusively. However, for successful primary prevention, a program must reach its target population before they become “infected,” or, in this situation, before children exhibit delinquent or antisocial behaviors. Conclusive evidence shows that gang initiation often begins as early as 12 years old, and that the age of initiation is getting younger (2). Results from the Seattle Social Development Project indicate that youth who are at greatest risk of becoming gang members are those who were most behaviorally or socially maladjusted in childhood (11). From a social learning perspective, many of these youth were likely conditioned by environmental influences from an early age.

By targeting 9-13 year olds, G.R.E.A.T. fails to intervene at a time early enough to prevent aggressive or antisocial behaviors in youth and consequently misses the opportunity to “immunize” many students against delinquency or gang involvement. Similarly, the relatively short duration of the program precludes effective mitigation of existing maladaptive behaviors. In 13 sessions, G.R.E.A.T. is not situated to degrade the learned attitudes and behaviors that have been reinforced repeatedly in children’s home or community environments. Research has indicated that successful violence prevention should be implemented early in childhood and should be targeted specifically to the highest risk groups (9). G.R.E.A.T fails to meet either of these criteria and is poorly designed to address the unique needs of children who are behaviorally predisposed to violence or gang activity.

School Component—inadequate learning environment

Gang researchers have found that gang-involved youth are less invested in school than non-gang involved youth (1). Likewise, poor school performance and weak commitment to school strongly correlate with increase delinquency and drug use (12). It could reasonably be inferred that at-risk youth who are minimally invested in school, would be less likely to benefit from prevention programs presented within a school setting. Other individual factors that negatively impact school performance, such as Attention Deficit Disorder, have been found to increase the risk of early onset of youth delinquency (12). Through its instructional approach to prevention, G.R.E.A.T. may isolate students who perceive academic instruction negatively or who have learning impairments that prevent them from fully absorbing the material. Unfortunately, these are the students who have been identified as high-risk, and who would benefit most from appropriately designed interventions.

Summer and Family Components—Self-Selective Benefit?

Additional components of G.R.E.A.T. include a summer program and a family-strengthening program, both of which are designed to augment the school-based curriculum by creating social opportunities for the students and encouraging families to work together to improve family functioning (13-14). However, unlike the school-based programs, the summer and family components of G.R.E.A.T. are voluntary for individual participants. Consequently, the proposed value derived from attending these programs may be self-selective, excluding youth and families who are more likely to exhibit anti-social attitudes or engage in dysfunctional interactions (i.e. the target population).

Researchers who examine gang involvement from an ecological perspective argue that at the cornerstone of organizational influences lies the family unit. From this perspective, families may serve as either a protective or risk factor for a child’s developmental trajectory (15). Accordingly, the breakdown of family structure may be the most predictive of all environmental factors that place youth at increased risk of gang involvement, youth violence and delinquency (16). Poor parenting skills, resulting from psychopathology, substance abuse and marital discord, have also been found to correlate highly with the development of antisocial behavior in children (15). The Rochester Youth Development Study found that low parent-child attachment and involvement were both significantly related to increased youth delinquency (12).

Considering the strong correlation between family variables and children’s social development, it seems perfectly appropriate that an effective gang and youth delinquency prevention program would seek to improve family functioning. However, G.R.E.A.T. is not designed to mitigate sufficiently the family risk factors that correlate with youth delinquency.

G.R.E.A.T. Families Component, which includes a family needs assessment, communications assessment, and skills development for effective discipline, addresses some of the above variables that have been found to increase youths’ risk of delinquency and gang involvement (14). However, the family variables that predict youth delinquency are likely to be the same factors that would deter families from participating in a 6 week family-strengthening program (15). The more dysfunctional, unstable or economically underprivileged a family is, the less likely that they will be able to take advantage of G.R.E.A.T. families component. Though they may benefit the most, parents who are marginally invested in the lives of their children are the least likely to participate in the program.

Similarly, the summer program, an optional component of G.R.E.A.T., is designed to augment the school-based curriculum through recreational, educational and self-esteem building activities during school recess (13). However, while this program may provide educational and social opportunities to some students, participation is voluntary. Consequently, youth who are most at-risk, who already exhibit antisocial attitudes, and who are engaging in delinquent behavior are unlikely to participate in an optional summer camp. Some evidence indicates that young children who are at greatest risk of gang involvement have higher levels of social isolation and lower levels of commitment to positive or pro-social peers (1). Not only is it unlikely that at-risk youth would volunteer to participate in this program, but in the event that their parents insisted on participation, they may experience further isolation from peers who perceive them negatively.


Gang Resistance Education and Training programs are inadequately designed to address the true needs of its target populations. Among the root causes prompting youth to engage in antisocial or delinquent activity is the complex interplay between individuals and their environments, which generates and/or reinforces social attitudes and predicts behaviors. In some economically disadvantaged, urban, or marginalized communities, violence and delinquency are ingrained in the culture and are largely predictive of the attitudes and behaviors of the youth who live there (10). A 13 week school-based prevention curriculum is not poised to address these complex factors with any degree of adequacy, nor is it capable of ameliorating powerful and often chronic environmental influences through skills-development or self-esteem promoting activities. Likewise, the benefit of participating in the summer or families component of G.R.E.A.T. is limited to children and families who are more likely to exhibit protective factors against delinquency initially. Conversely, children and families who would benefit most from the supplementary G.R.E.A.T. components are excluded from these supports by the same variables that put then at risk.


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2. Howell JC. Youth Gangs. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Fact Sheet 1997 Dec; 72:1-2.
3. Cox RP. An Exploration of the demographic and social correlates of criminal behavior among adolescent males. Journal of Adolescent Health 1996; 19:17-24.
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12. . Browning K, Thornberry TP, Porter PK. Highlights of findings from the Rochester youth development study. U.S. Department of Justice. Juvenile Justice Bulletin 1999 April; 1-2.
13. Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) Program. G.R.E.A.T Summer Component. Tallahassee, FL: Institute for Intergovernmental Research.
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