Beyond Rhetoric: What Can Young People Do to Reduce Violence? Part 2

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Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Dennis D. Embry, PhD 

Watching the TV guests and pundits, none of them appear to have any scientific or practical knowledge about preventing school or community violence. None of them have conducted scientific research to reduce the emergence of aggression, violence and even murders. When I hear high school students speak fatalistically about the inevitability of such violence in their school, it is time we equip students themselves with scientifically proven strategies to reduce aggression and violence in their communities. 

Some of the possible strategies will surprise readers, but each thing I’m suggesting has a solid basis in science that can be looked up at or I recommend that high school and middle school students across the country take on bringing solid science to their communities to begin reducing the biological and social causes of human violence, including homicide. The column gives some examples of actionable changes.

  1. Map and present common but invisible preventable biological causes of for your community.
    For example, airborne lead levels predict homicide and juvenile delinquency in the 3011 counties of the lower 48 states [1, 2]. It is important to note that African American children have higher exposure and levels of lead [3]. Here is a map of lead level in Chicago (dark orange is worst; dark blue best), and you can get a map of lead exposure for your area at Lead in the brain is not good for behavior, crime or academic success, duh. And such lead exposure accounts for significant historic disparities associated with social class, race or ethnicity.

    kids at risk

The only things good about airborne or waterborne lead is for the prison-industrial complex, or for people who want to sell more guns.

Another example of a preventable cause of violence is the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acid in the diet of children, teens, and adults [4-7]. Why, because reducing Omega-6 and increasing Omega-3 consumption in schools or other institutional settings reduces aggression [8-10]. School lunch programs are exceptionally high in Omega-6 fatty acids, as a consequence of the Farm Bill.


(Note: To learn more about the effect of ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 on human behavior and development, please download and view the presentation by CAPT Joseph R. Hibbeln, M.D. Acting Chief, Section on Nutritional Neurosciences, NIAAA, NIH).

  1. Increase Student Driven Reinforcement of Pro-Social Behaviors at School.
    Since the dawn of our species, we have been the main protector and predator of each other. Classic psychology experiments such as the Robber’s Cave experiment involving 5th graders or Stanford University Prison Experiment involving undergraduates show that we, as humans, can become aggressive and violent toward each other just by small changes in identity, roles, and access to resources.

The reverse of this is to increase peer-to-peer reinforcement of prosocial behavior behaviors across the entire school as daily practice. The first study I know about to show that peer-to-peer reinforcement reduced delinquency and problem behaviors was an “accidental randomized trial” of high-schools in the United Kingdom, reported by Michael Rutter and colleagues [11]. The Rutter study showed that the more that staff and students recognized each other for prosocial behaviors each month, the better behavior was in those high schools.

My colleagues, Tom Dishion and Hill Walker, have proven that peer reinforcement for anti-social behavior commonly found in schools and other settings predicts adolescent violent and criminal behavior [12-15].

However, when one institutes setting events and positive-peer reinforcement strategies, one can reduce the rates of peer aggression significantly and quickly.  For example, with our randomized-control PeaceBuilders study embedded in a city-wide effort funded by the CDC Students reduced medically coded violent injuries at school in less than one year [16], and had the largest benefits for the students with the highest level of delinquency and risk [17]. It is worth noting, too, in our Good Behavior Game studies that increased positive peer reinforcement in 1st and 2nd grade for prosocial behavior is the main predictor of reduced risk of suicide attempts in adolescence [18].

A practical example of how such peer-to-peer reinforcement in secondary school can be organized is helpful. In the late 1990s, I received a call from a school district in Southern California, where we were supporting the PeaceBuilders [19, 20] violence prevention strategy in elementary and K-8 schools. The district was reorganizing its high-school buildings, which involved putting all the 9th graders in one building. Unfortunately, there were reportedly 28 known urban gangs in the building among the 1,400 or so students, with serious behavior problems as a consequence. Violence, vandalism, bullying and other difficulties were rampant—even with two School Resource Officers on campus and a zero-tolerance policy. The district asked for our help. Yikes!!!! Oh my god, what should we do?

All of the behavior was about status among peers, of course. That is a human trait, especially as young people enter mid-adolescence in conditions of conflict and perceived scarcity. Our solution was ridiculously simple, and it was designed to use adolescent development literature to our advantage. The same core strategy can be adapted to other sites:

As pundits, politicians, and even experts pontificate about each other’s failings; our students do not become safer, healthier, happier or more successful academically. In fact, we are showing the next generation that adults are largely impotent, or only interested in being on camera.

While I was on honeymoon/vacation in March, I watched the students across America speak at rallies via the Internet. I felt immense pride in these young people; they were cogent and action-oriented, yet many political leaders simply mumbled platitudes of prayers and thoughts.

While the country argues over gun laws, there are simple, scientifically proven strategies that can and will reduce violence in schools and related mental health problems. My fellow scientists and I are among a small number of people who have conducted and published peer-reviewed experimental studies to reduce human violence. That science is simply ignored. If this were a case of cancer or some frightening infectious disease, people would be clamoring for real public-health prevention. 

It’s time that we equip our young people with the tools from that science better their futures.

Conflict of Interest Statement: Dr. Embry is president of PAXIS Institute, a prevention-science company that develops and sells scientifically proven materials and services to schools, communities, states/provinces, and countries to prevent mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders.

  1. Stretesky, P.B. and M.J. Lynch, The relationship between lead exposure and homicide. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 2001. 155(5): p. 579-82.
  2. Stretesky, P.B. and M.J. Lynch, The relationship between lead and crime. Journal of Health & Social Behavior, 2004. 45(2): p. 214-29.
  3. Theppeang, K., et al., Gender and race/ethnicity differences in lead dose biomarkers. American Journal of Public Health, 2008. 98(7): p. 1248-55.
  4. Hibbeln, J.R., et al., Healthy intakes of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids: estimations considering worldwide diversity. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2006. 83(6 Suppl): p. 1483S-1493S.
  5. Hibbeln, J.R., Seafood consumption and homicide mortality. A cross-national ecological analysis. World Review of Nutrition & Dietetics, 2001. 88: p. 41-6.
  6. Hibbeln, J.R., L.R. Nieminen, and W.E. Lands, Increasing homicide rates and linoleic acid consumption among five Western countries, 1961-2000. Lipids, 2004. 39(12): p. 1207-13.
  7. Freeman, M.P., et al., Omega-3 fatty acids: evidence basis for treatment and future research in psychiatry. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2006. 67(12): p. 1954-67.
  8. Raine, A., et al., Reduction in behavior problems with omega-3 supplementation in children aged 8-16 years: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, stratified, parallel-group trial. J Child Psychol Psychiatry, 2015. 56(5): p. 509-20.
  9. Raine, A., et al., Nutritional supplementation to reduce child aggression: a randomized, stratified, single-blind, factorial trial. J Child Psychol Psychiatry, 2016. 57(9): p. 1038-46.
  10. Hibbeln, J.R. and R.V. Gow, The potential for military diets to reduce depression, suicide, and impulsive aggression: a review of current evidence for omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Mil Med, 2014. 179(11 Suppl): p. 117-28.
  11. Rutter, M., B. Maughan, and P. Mortimore, Fifteen Thousand Hours: Secondary Schools and Their Effects on Children. 1982: Harvard University Press.
  12. Walker, H.M., et al., Longitudinal prediction of the school achievement, adjustment, and delinquency of antisocial versus at-risk boys. RASE: Remedial & Special Education, 1991. 12(4): p. 43-51.
  13. Shinn, M.R., et al., Antisocial behavior in school settings: Initial differences in an at risk and normal population. Journal of Special Education, 1987. 21(2): p. 69.
  14. Dishion, T.J., et al., Deviancy training in male adolescents friendships. Behavior Therapy, 1996. 27(3): p. 373-390.
  15. Dishion, T.J., et al., Friendships and violent behavior during adolescence. Social Development, 1997. 6(2): p. 207-223.
  16. Krug, E.G., et al., The impact of an elementary school-based violence prevention program on visits to the school nurse. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 1997. 13(6): p. 459-63.
  17. Vazsonyi, A.T., L.M. Belliston, and D.J. Flannery, Evaluation of a School-Based, Universal Violence Prevention Program: Low-, Medium-, and High-Risk Children. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 2004. 2(2): p. 185-206.
  18. Newcomer, A.R., et al., Higher Childhood Peer Reports of Social Preference Mediates the Impact of the Good Behavior Game on Suicide Attempt. Prev Sci, 2016. 17(2): p. 145-56.
  19. Embry, D.D., et al., PeaceBuilders: A theoretically driven, school-based model for early violence prevention. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 1996. 12(5, Suppl): p. 91.
  20. Embry, D.D., Does your school have a peaceful environment? Using an audit to create a climate for change and resiliency. Intervention in School and Clinic, 1997. 32: p. 217-222.

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embryDennis Embry, President/Senior Scientist at PAXIS Institute – Dennis D. Embry is a prominent prevention scientist in the United States and Canada, trained as clinician and developmental and child psychologist. He is president/senior scientist at PAXIS Institute in Tucson, Arizona. Dennis Embry serves on the scientific advisory board for the Children’s Mental Health Network and the U.S. Center for Mental Health Services Advisory Council.


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