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Roberto Clemente High School students take part in a BAM--Sports Edition counseling session while counselor Tony DiVittorio (middle) looks on.

U of C ranks violence prevention program top of the class

by Paul Schott
Nov 18, 2009

U of C ranks violence prevention program top of the class

Just about every opinion has been voiced on youth violence in Chicago. Now the University of Chicago wants to let the numbers do the talking.

The university is launching an anti-violence initiative that will study how more than 500 Chicago teenage boys respond to a project titled Becoming a Man—Sports Edition. The program will provide cognitive behavior therapy, counseling, and access to Olympic sports such as archery and fencing.

The initiative is a collaboration among three organizations: the university’s Crime Lab, launched last year to encourage new anti-violence programs; Youth Guidance, a long-established Chicago social service agency; and World Sport Chicago, formed to support Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics. The program will have $1 million in backing from funders including the Joyce Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust. Scheduled to run in 15 Chicago public schools during the 2009-10 academic year, Becoming a Man--Sports Edition will analyze numbers measuring participants' grade completion, arrests, suspensions, and class attendance. The new initiative expands on a Becoming a Man program that offers only therapy and counseling. It has run in several city schools since 2001.

BAM--Sports won a competition sponsored by the Crime Lab. The lab solicited ideas for innovative pilot anti-violence programs from city agencies, nonprofit and faith-based organizations.

The program mirrors empirical approaches that have driven down heart disease and infant mortality rates, according to Jens Ludwig, a University of Chicago professor. The fact that past violence prevention programs paid little attention to numbers, he said, is one reason why homicide rates have remained mainly static over the last 50 years.

“We think one of the reasons that we haven’t made the same sort of dramatic progress in the violence area,” said Ludwig, “is that we haven’t been able to do as good a job in using data.”

Becoming a Man--Sports Edition will not compete with a Chicago Public Schools plan to give mentors and jobs to at-risk youth, he said. CPS is targeting students most vulnerable to falling prey to violence. BAM--Sports, on the other hand, will select participants randomly from a pool of moderately at-risk candidates.

The program was officially unveiled Wednesday at an event at Roberto Clemente High School in Humboldt Park. Among the city officials on hand was Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis. He stressed that the police department cannot deal with youth violence on its own.

“Law enforcement is not the solution to this alone. It takes a change for the entire community,” he said. “It’s exciting that we have partners that are going to come and offer these young men an opportunity to succeed.”

Those attending the event got to see a counseling session in action. Tony DiVittorio, a counselor and BAM founder, led a group session in which Clemente male students discussed their concerns and anxieties. The group then broke into pairs to spar with boxing gloves and bags, channeling what DiVittorio termed negative “savage” energy into a positive “warrior” form.

Chris Mallette, the director of community safety initiatives for Mayor Daley, said the program enjoys the mayor’s full support. However, he emphasized that combating youth violence is a citywide struggle.

“The collaborative approach between the public sector, the private sector, the academic world, the school system--that is critical and essential for success,” said Mallette. “One entity is not going to solve this on its own.”