The North Carolina Center for Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention (NC-ACE) is the product of a nearly $6.5 million federal grant awarded to an interdisciplinary team of UNC researchers, led by School of Social Work Professor Paul Smokowski, Ph.D. The center provides community support and solutions for preventing and reducing youth violence in Robeson County, N.C.
NC-ACE joins three similar U.S. centers in larger metropolitan areas. Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the centers were established under the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control following the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School.
North Carolina’s center is the nation’s first rural Youth Violence Prevention Center and serves one of the most ethnically diverse rural counties in the United States. Robeson County has a majority-minority population; more than 68 percent of the county’s 129,000 residents are Native American, African American and Latino.
The center is a collaborative partnership between the UNC School of Social Work, the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center (IPRC), and community agencies in Robeson County, including the Robeson County Health Department, Department of Juvenile Services, and Public Schools of Robeson County. Smokowski, the project’s principal investigator, will direct the center with help from Co-Director Martica Bacallao, Ph.D.
“The point of the center is to combine and build on existing community assets and bring new resources and programs to the county in order to help support the positive development of youth,” Smokowski said. “Increasing community and family resourcefulness is key. Without those resources, youth can lose future prospectives. When youth lose hope, they become more disconnected from family and school, which can lead to other alternatives, such as anti-social behavior.”
To assess the impact of the Center’s activities, researchers are tracking community and school rates of violence in Robeson County and across the state. The project is also following 3,000 middle school students – about half of all middle school youth in Robeson County – over five years to compare the students’ development to that of 2,000 similar students in a comparison group from a nearby county. School of Social Work Professor Shenyang Guo, Ph.D., and Research Professor Dean Duncan, Ph.D., will lead this evaluation.
By focusing on middle-school youth, Smokowski said the project can potentially reach and affect young people before “problems become entrenched.” Research has shown, for example, that dropout rates, alcohol use, and aggressive behavior increase once students reach high school.
“Our goal ultimately is to promote the positive and successful development of middle school adolescents so that they can go on to have bright futures,” Smokowski said.
According to the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Robeson’s youth death rate of 123.6 per 100,000 people is nearly double the state’s rate of 74.7; Robeson County’s homicide rate of 23.9 per 100,000 is more than triple the State’s average of 7.2 for 2004-2008.
These difficulties, researchers and community partners agreed, are largely a result of the county’s ongoing economic struggles, which have long-created significant hardships for individuals, families and children. Among communities in the South, Robeson County has been on the forefront of increasing poverty brought on by massive job losses. In the last decade alone, the county has lost almost 9,000 manufacturing jobs. Such losses are reflected in the 30.4 percent of residents who, according to the U.S. Census, were living below poverty level in 2008 – more than double the percentage nationwide.
Researchers and community partners kept these challenges in mind as they worked together to identify the risks that Robeson’s adolescents encounter as well as protective strengths that offer them support. Year 1 of the project examined the needs of individuals, families and the community as a whole. From that assessment, four intervention programs that have shown success in preventing youth violence were choosen to address the specific needs of Robeson County. These interventions include: Positive Action, Parenting Wisely, Teen Court and Student Against Violence Everywhere (S.A.V.E.). The project is currently working to implement these programs in the community.