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Pickens, J. (2010). Participatory Action Research to Reduce Youth Violence. PHILICA.COM Article number 212.

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Participatory Action Research to Reduce Youth Violence

Jeffrey Pickensconfirmed user (Social Sciences, Saint Thomas University)

Published in psycho.philica.com

A Community Based “Participatory Action Research” (PAR) approach was used to measure outcomes for a violence prevention initiative in an urban South Florida community. Researchers from a local university partnered with municipalities, schools, police, funding agencies and community-based providers of youth and family violence prevention programs to measure outcomes. Collaborative planning helped gain a consensus on the appropriate measurement tools and research strategies for a diverse coalition of providers. The participatory approach resulted in “buy-in” and cooperation by community partners for data collection and increased use of standardized instruments and pre-post-test design to assess outcomes. Initial results showed that Life Skills Training resulted in improved Violence Risk and Self-Control scores on the SAGE Youth Risk Behavior Scale. Neighborhood safety and community policing events increased community residents’ reported civic engagement and involvement in violence prevention efforts. Overall, the PAR approach was an effective way for university researchers to work more closely with community based partners to conduct research on programs aimed at reducing youth violence. The research documenting risks and outcomes helped make the case for challenges and needs in the community, and helped stimulate civic leaders to take action and fund expanded violence prevention programs.

Article body

           A university-community alliance organized local partners to address alarming levels of youth gang activity, murder, violence and crime in low-income, African-American neighborhoods in South Florida.  Some communities in Miami have prospered in recent decades, while in contrast, the small cities of Opa Locka & Miami Gardens suffer from some of the highest crime rates in the entire Nation (FBI, 2006; USDOJ, 2004; FDLE, 2008).  A small group of community leaders and university action researchers recognized the need for Social Justice and action.  The initiative aimed to address the high crime rates and to organize schools and service providers to leverage political, economic and community resources to address the urgent need to save the children in these neighborhoods.  Stakeholders organized together to form a “Youth Violence Prevention Coalition” (YVPC) to create a web of integrated services to address teen truancy, school drop-out and suspension, street crime and gang violence impacting schools and neighborhoods.  University researchers worked collaboratively with schools and youth service providers using a Participatory Action Research (PAR) model, to develop culturally appropriate youth violence prevention programs, as well as infrastructure and capacity to measure program outcomes.  This presentation discusses challenges encountered and strategies developed in the first years of implementing the YVPC, along with selected outcomes to illustrate the process.

Participatory action research (PAR) attempts to increase the community’s capacity to implement and evaluate programs – in the present case to address the problems of youth truancy, crime and violence.  First suggested by Kurt Lewin (1946), PAR is an approach in which the researcher's actions within a participatory community aim to improve the performance quality of the community in an area of concern (Dick, 2002; Reason & Bradbury, 2001; Hult & Lennung, 1980; McNiff, 2002;O'Brien, 2001). Using the PAR model we utilized systematic cycles of planning, action, observing, evaluating and reflecting to create and enhance YVPC governance, strategies and outcomes. 

Action research has been previously employed in areas such as testing new strategies for increasing student literacy [Quigley, 2000] or to increase emergency room efficiencies (Eisenberg, Baglia & Pynes, 2006). In the current case, PAR was used as a method to involve and organize partners in service delivery, and also to evaluate outcomes, improve program quality, and to stimulate social change.

The Epidemic of Youth Violence.  In 2001, the US Surgeon General stated “an epidemic of violent, often lethal behavior broke out in this country, forcing millions of young people and their families to cope with injury, disability, and death” (US Surgeon General Report on Youth Violence, 2001). In 2004, more than 750,000 young people ages 10 to 24 were treated in emergency departments for injuries sustained due to violence (CDCP, 2006). In a nationwide survey of high school students (CDCP, 2003): 33% reported being in a physical fight in the past 12 months, 17% reported carrying a weapon in the past 30 days. One report estimates that 30% of 6th to 10th graders in the United States were involved in bullying as either perpetrators or victims (Nansel et al., 2001).  The problems associated with youth violence are even more acutely experienced in some underserved, urban communities.

This study focused on Miami Gardens and Opa Locka – small Miami Dade County communities in South Florida.  The residents are mostly (77.4%) African-American, with 20.4% Hispanics and only 3% Non-Hispanic Whites.  Household incomes for these areas average $23,598 compared with $43,921for rest of Dade County (U.S. Census, 2000), with 85% of public school students eligible for free/reduced lunch, compared with a 44% State wide (FL-DOE, 2006). In 2003-4 and 2004 this area had the highest violent crime rate in the United States according to the FBI (USDOJ, 2004; FDLE, 2008). Miami Gardens was at one time designated the 6th most dangerous city in the United States (USDOJ, 2004), and this area was identified as “the most dangerous zip-code for teens in Miami-Dade County” where “a review of statistics from the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office shows a higher rate of gunshot deaths among children 17 and younger in this area than in any other part of the county” (Miami Herald, 2007).  African American students were six times more likely to be suspended than white students, and truancy rates in these communities were 17.2%, compared to 12% county-wide (FL-DOE, 2006).

In this context, the community partnered with a university located in the heart of the area, and developed a campus-community alliance of stakeholders and interested policy makers, civic leaders and community-based schools and programs.  This evolved into a youth-violence network known as the Miami Gardens & Opa Locka Youth Violence Prevention Coalition funded by the Children’s Trust, the South Florida children’s services funding agency, to implement expanded youth violence prevention services in the target area.  University researchers collaborated with the YVPC providers from 2006-2009 on the current project.



Adolescents from middle and high school, between 13 – 18 years of age, were enrolled in an out of school suspension program.  The teens were referred as a result of behavioral suspensions from public schools in Opa Locka and Miami Gardens Florida, and from police truancy sweeps in the local neighborhoods.  Two school year cohorts were measured (2007-08, 2008-09), with 265 youths participating in at least 8 days of “Life Skills Training” programming.

Community residents (N=309) attended a series of violence prevention meetings and completed a civic engagement survey at the start and end of the 3-workshop series.  Table 1 shows demographic information on this sample.

Table 1. Demographic Information


Age Range: 13 to 18 years

Mean Age: 15.5 years (sd = 2.15)

N = 265 (Females = 126, Males = 139)


African American/Black 91.1%               

Mixed Race 5.7%

Hispanic-White 3.2%

Non-Hispanic White 0%


Age Range: 18  to 79 years

Mean Age: 41.79 years (sd = 15.29)

N =  309  (Females = 216, Males = 90) Avg. # Children: 2.5


African American/Black 88.5%               

White/Caucasian 4.1%

Other/Mixed Race 7.4%


American 66.1%

Hispanic/Latino 17.9%                                                  

Haitian 16.1%

Primary Language (English 88.1%, Spanish 6.3%, Creole/French 4.8%)


Some High School 30.8%

High School Degree 29.1%

Some College 27.4%

College Degree 2.6%

Other/Technical 9.4%

Graduate School 0.9%

 The Prevention Curriculum  The out of school suspension program employed an evidence-based “Life Skills Training” model. The curriculum was mostly presented in group format, with a trained Life Skills instructor/facilitator, but also included behavioral rehearsals, role play and feedback techniques.  Lessons included: 1) Self Image, 2) Decision Making, 3) Smoking and Alcohol, 4) Marijuana, 5) Violence and Media, 7) Coping with Anxiety, 8) Coping with Anger, 9) Communication Skills, 10) Social Skills, and 11) Resolving Conflicts.  LST is intended to build psychosocial competencies: decision making, problem solving, communications, managing interpersonal relationships, increasing self-awareness, empathy, and coping with emotions and stress.  Studies have shown positive outcomes for LST programs (Botvin & Griffin, 2002; Botvin, Griffin & Nichols, 2006;Griffin, Botvin, Nichols & Doyle, 2003; Spoth et al., 2008).

Measurement Tools

Baseline Surveys.  Preliminary baseline surveys in the schools helped to document some of the challenges faced by students. A 12-item “School Climate Survey” was administered to 1500 teens enrolled in public schools in the target area.

         SAGE Youth Risk Behavior Survey: The SAGE YRBS (Flewelling, Paschall & Ringwalt, 1993), is a 37-item self-report measure of teens’ frequency of drug and alcohol use, aggressive and risky behaviors, exposure to violence, and self-control (Dahlberg, Toal, Swahn & Behrens, 2005; Flewelling, Paschall & Ringwalt, 1993; Paschall & Flewelling, 1997). YRBS was administered in a pre-test/ post-test design at the start and end of a 10-day to 2-week suspension program. Subscales include a 12-item “Violence Risk Score” (range: 12 to 60); 13-item “Drug/Alcohol Risk Score” (range: 13 to 78); 6-item “Self-Control Score” (range: 6 to 24) and 6-item “Cooperation Score” (range: 6 to 24), with higher scores as more optimal for each score. Note that the Life Skills Questionnaires (LSQ-Middle and LSQ-High School) were administered, but an insufficient number of students completed LSQ post-tests, and therefore these data were not included in the present study.

Residents Civic Engagement:  Adult residents  completed a Civic Engagement Survey derived from the U.S. Department of Education Civic Engagement Survey (Hagedorn et al., 2004; U.S. Dept. of Education, 2007). Questions referred to resident perceptions about community safety and crime prevention efforts.  Civic Engagement surveys were administered in a pre-test/post-test design at the start and end of a series of monthly violence prevention sessions (only residents who participated in 3 half-day sessions contributed data).


School climate surveys showed that the students in the community were exposed to multiple riskfactors including drugs/alcohol, weapons and violence), and that many teens were disengaged and did not feel safe at school or in their neighborhoods, and were participating in a wide range of risky behaviors including substance and alcohol use, gang activity, fighting, and unsafe sexual activity. This early descriptive data was useful in documenting the need for prevention programs in the community, and to support applications for local funding for expanding the prevention programs.

The SAGE Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS): Analysis of Violence Risk Scores showed that students in the suspension programs reported less time participating in or witnessing violence (see Figure, below), a statistically significant change (t(264) = 2.188, p < .05) For the Drug/Alcohol Risk Scores there was no change from pre- to post-test (t(263) = 0.998, p > .05). In contrast to the School Climate Survey, many students in the suspension program reported zero initial use of alcohol or drugs on the SAGE pre-test, which suggests a type of “Ceiling/Floor effect” where baseline is too low to permit any improvement.  Students total “Self-Control” scores showed a significant increase (t(260) = 2.43, p < .05), while Cooperation Scores did not change from pre- to post-test over the course of the program (t(264) = 0.11, p > .05).


Figure 1.  SAGE Youth Risk Behavior Survey Mean Pre vs. Post-test Scores

Community residents who participated in violence prevention sessions took a Civic Engagement Survey at the start and end of the workshop series. For 309 residents, the Total Civic Engagement Scores went from 39.1 on pretest to 51.6 on post-test, indicating increased civic cohesion and involvement, a statistically significant change (paired t(308) = 15.15, p < .05). Figure 2 displays individual survey item means (Items 1 - 10), showing higher scores on post-test versus pre-test indicating increased agreement with each civic engagement item by the end of the residents’ violence prevention workshop program (p < .05 all tests).



 Figure 2: Civic Engagement Survey Pre- versus Post Test Scores


Participatory Action Research (PAR) is an approach to assist organizations  - such as the community based youth violence prevention network examined in the current study – to build capacity and stimulate social change.  The evaluation of program outcomes was aided by a partnership with university researchers to improve prevention practices.  The process allowed program providers, school staff, police and residents to inform the evaluation process about local issues, culture and community.  Furthermore, the development of the partnership with university researchers increased evaluation capacity and available outcomes data, and this accountability was very instrumental in seeking funding to create a sustainable youth violence prevention network in the community.  Social marketing and anti-violence activities increased residents civic engagement and community cohesion, and supported increased social justice activities to lobby local funders to support targeted anti-violence initiatives for the community.  Participatory research helped this community to take action to expand and improve its youth violence prevention programs.

 Baseline surveys showcased the high levels of risk and violence exposure for youths in the target community.  Likewise, residents were surveyed and indicated many problems and risks in their community  that were contributing to teen participation in drugs, violence and crime. Initial surveys provided the descriptive data that was useful to show the needs and challenges in the communities, and to stimulate development of expanded evaluation capacity and strategic use of outcomes data to improve and sustain prevention efforts.

Responses of teens enrolled in an out-of-school suspension program from the SAGE youth risk behavior survey showed that such programs can help increase youth’s awareness about risky behavior, violence, drugs and alcohol.  Higher scores on end-of-program post-tests suggested the students achieved more information and positive attitudes about these risk factors. The youth outcomes data were some of the first evaluations attempted by these programs, and were important for establishing data on program efficacy and accountability.

One observation worth noting was the low rate of self-reported use of alcohol and drugs by youths on their initial intake assessment with the YRBS survey.  The survey questions asked about both frequency of use, and also about “last use” going back as far as 1 year.  These students were from the same cohort that reported much higher rates of exposure to drugs/alcohol on school climate surveys, yet they did not report drug/alcohol on the SAGE at the start of the LST program. Although ID numbers (not names) were used in the assessments, students may have worried their responses were not anonymous. A positive self-presentation bias by teens on self-report drug inventories have been reported in prior studies (Bauman & Ennett, 1994; Campanelli, Dielman, & Shope, 1987; Crockett, Schulenberg, & Petersen, 1987).  While not every study finds teen self-reported drug/alcohol use as inaccurate (Maisto, Connors & Allen, 1995; Winters, 1990), but the current study results raise questions about the validity of self reported responses about alcohol/drug use by teens in this sample. Teens probably were providing socially desirable responses in the context of their school suspension. Future research may need to explore different tools and instruction sets to increase self disclosure of risks. 

An interesting feature of the PAR approach was the partnership with the university created student internships and service learning placements in the community.  Students served as peer mentors, assisted with survey administration, test scoring, data entry and participating at a variety of youth, family and community resident activities.  Given the importance of experiential learning, the creation of new internships was an important educational advance that benefitted students, university and community.  Overall, the Participatory Action Research partnership with university researchers and a local community-based coalition of schools, police and youth/family services created a culture of increased value for research on outcomes, increased capacity to conduct evaluations, and engage providers of prevention services to use the feedback for the benefit of the youth violence prevention models in use in the local community.


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Pickens, J. (2010). Participatory Action Research to Reduce Youth Violence. PHILICA.COM Article number 212.

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