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Dr. Georges C. Benjamin Headshot
Tio Hardiman Headshot

Let's Make Youth a Part of Youth Violence Prevention

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The teenager shot this March on Chicago's West Side wasn't given a voice. Neither were several others affected weeks later by gang-related violence. As experts gather this week at the University of Illinois at Chicago to address the ongoing problem of youth violence and bullying, it's time to consider a new strategy: giving young people a voice in developing solutions.

Launching a two-way dialogue with young people is a relatively new approach that could make an impact. Bullying and violence can be prevented, but it takes an entire community working together, including teens, to find a lasting solution.

Chicago may have made progress since a teenager's killing attracted national attention in 2009, but this week's panel is uncovering how a more multidisciplinary approach to prevention could bring about new hope. That includes bringing in the kids -- a class of 8th graders have been invited to the University of Illinois at Chicago campus to ask questions of the panelists and share their insights.

The National Public Health Week panel is looking at why, a decade after the Surgeon General's first report on youth violence, we're still seeing new victims. Every day, 16 young people nationwide are murdered, on average -- way too many, in our experience. Chicago's emergency rooms and neighborhood streets have been filled with families torn apart, but it doesn't have to be this way if we bring young people into the discussion.

As anyone who has ever tried to convince a teenager to clean his room knows, issuing orders is less effective than enabling teens to take ownership of problems themselves. The same holds true with bigger issues like violence and bullying, especially cyberbullying, which affects nearly half of the nation's teenagers -- and often goes on behind adults' backs. If we give young people a voice, they'll help us stop youth violence before it starts.

Last summer, for example, after a young man was shot in the West Garfield neighborhood, authorities feared a potential retaliation shooting. However, mediators from CeaseFire Illinois, a local campaign that has helped reduce shootings in Chicago, ultimately convinced the two young men to work out their differences together. The program paired them with peer mentors -- giving young people a voice in solving this challenge.

Other success stories like this exist, but there's more we can do. Nationally, nearly two-thirds of high school students report having been in a physical fight, and nearly 20 percent say they've been bullied on school property.

To help prevent future tragedies, the American Public Health Association has issued a policy calling for greater community involvement in prevention. The policy urges academic institutions, local health departments and community-based organizations to take a more active role. President Obama has also gotten involved, recently hosting a White House conference on bullying prevention and even taking the discussion to a favorite online teen hangout: Facebook.

Beyond these actions at the policy level, every one of us who interacts with young people in our jobs, our neighborhoods, our schools and throughout our communities can initiate a critical dialogue. Take advantage of opportunities to find out what teens and young adults are thinking, and let them know they're not alone. Remind them where they can go for help -- parents, teachers and other trusted adults -- and encourage them to speak up.

Their voices need to be heard. And after all the violence we've seen, it's time we listen.

By Tio Hardiman, the director of CeaseFire Illinois, an award-winning effort that has significantly reduced shootings in Chicago neighborhoods; and Georges Benjamin, M.D., F.A.C.P., F.A.C.E.P. (E.), the executive director of the American Public Health Association, which is hosting National Public Health Week April 4-10. Dr. Benjamin has served as an emergency room physician, witnessing firsthand the damages of youth violence.