- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Reducing the senseless gun violence that kills and injures thousands of young people each year may seem like an impossible challenge when you read news reports such as this: “At least 52 … shot and 10 killed in just three days.”

But as we found over the past year in Chicago, real progress is possible if you can isolate the problem, define its characteristics and target your resources more effectively.

During the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years, some 500 Chicago students were shot; more than 50 died.

In June 2009, Ron Huberman, who was chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system, decided to tackle the spiraling problem. He enlisted our help.

Using corporate data-analysis techniques, we identified the main risk factors, as well as the highest-risk students and most dangerous hot spots in the city. This enabled public officials to focus their efforts and resources where they were needed most.

The early results are encouraging. Shootings and homicides fell 16 percent in the 2009-10 school year from the previous year. During the current school year, shootings were down an additional 11 percent at midyear.

Officials hope eventually to reduce the number of student shootings by 50 percent or more. That may sound overly optimistic, but many shootings are retaliation for earlier acts of violence. So, as the numbers fall, there should be a ratcheting-down effect.

The program started with the development of an analytical model - which large companies use to tackle complex problems - comparing the small number of students who had been shot to the broader secondary-school population of about 116,000.

This helped identify the small subset of students, approximately 1,200 total, who were most at risk. Of these, some 200 students fell in the “ultra-high-risk” category, meaning they were statistically some 50 times more likely to become gun violence victims than the average student. This helped redefine the challenge and channel extra resources where they were needed most.

CPS adopted a two-pronged strategy. First, the 1,200 “at risk” students were assigned personal mentors, since the analysis had shown that most didn’t have any meaningful adult relationship in their lives. Not surprisingly, these students often missed school and got into trouble when they did show up.

The mentoring helped. When one ultra-high-risk student received death threats, for instance, his mentor helped relocate him to Colorado to live with his brother. As a result of the mentoring program, students today feel safer and are more engaged in school.

The second component of the program was increasing security in certain hot spots where students felt particularly unsafe. While it was important to maintain security across the entire sprawling school system, the program significantly increased security in certain danger zones, providing students with “safe passage” across gang boundaries, for example, on their way to and from school.

The program also helped increase collaboration among the city’s 120 high schools and identify best practices for improving safety. One key to this was the creation of a “safety metric” that adjusts each school’s safety score based on its location. It’s now possible to compare the safety record of a school in a notoriously dangerous neighborhood with that of a school in a tranquil neighborhood.

What we learned from this is that underperforming schools typically rely on guards and security cameras, while top performers focus on helping students deal with the social and emotional problems that fuel violence.

To be sure, significant challenges, including funding, remain. With the city of Chicago facing a reported $654.8 million budget deficit in the current fiscal year, there will be pressure to reduce the $40 million outlay for the program.

Officials are hopeful that they can reduce costs by encouraging volunteers to help staff the safe passage program. But mentoring remains expensive, since working with very-high-risk students is a demanding, full-time job.

Meanwhile, other cities are looking at Chicago’s violence-prevention program as a model for their own communities. With thousands of children and teenagers killed or injured by guns each year, let’s hope they do more than look.

Aaron Brown is a partner in the Chicago office of the Boston Consulting Group, a global business consulting firm. Mark Ostermann is a principal in BCG’s Chicago office.

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