Anger Management and the Code of the Street

Barrett-Naylor-2The room was stuffy and hot, the scent of stale snack foods hung in the air and the boys in the anger management group in this locked facility were distracted. As a young clinician and group facilitator, I was frustrated.

We had been reviewing the steps of the “anger cycle” for weeks and no one seemed to be retaining the information. With an exasperated sigh, I tried to remind them that this material was designed to prevent the situations that got them locked up, and thus stuck here with me.

Before I could start back on the first step of the cycle, a boy who I will call Jay dismissively rattled off all eight steps as well as the positive coping skills taught to avoid violence. I was stunned. Jay was a frequent flyer to this detention facility. Of the many groups I’d had with him, he was never an active participant.

I asked Jay why, if he knew the material so well, he had never used them to avoid incarceration. He replied, “This stuff would never work in the neighborhood where I’m from; you try this, you’re gonna get punked.”

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Jay, like many of the other boys in that facility, got into trouble due to the “code of the street.” This code dictates that any sign of disrespect must be aggressively avenged with retaliation.

After several conversations with Jay about why the skills we were teaching were not helpful, I began to question the effectiveness of teaching these kids skills that are irrelevant to the situations they encounter in their neighborhoods. This frustration would mount as I started to notice retaliatory violence glorified and celebrated in popular culture.

For example, in hockey there are “enforcers” on each team, prepared to defend the honor of a smaller, more vulnerable teammate. Similarly, in baseball, if a batter “shows a pitcher up” by staring at a home run ball for too long before running the bases, that batter is likely to be intentionally hit by the pitcher the next inning.

Indeed, the ubiquity of these messages explicitly endorsing “justified” violence make it very difficult for a clinician to teach a maxim such as “be the bigger person and walk away from a fight.” This is clearly not the message that popular culture is giving to young people.

Sadly, today the “code of the street” is not taken into account when arresting, sentencing and treating these adolescents. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, in 2013 there were 1.1 million juvenile delinquency cases. Approximately 186,000 of these cases were for charges of simple assault. Most of these youth come from lower-income minority families.

Jay, like many young men charged with simple assault, was referred for anger management treatment. The group I facilitated centered on learning anger management and conflict resolution skills.

The assumption that all violence stems from the same emotions and thoughts has led many clinicians to apply this one intervention across the board. While anger management curricula can be quite effective for adolescent struggling with mood swings, impulsivity or difficulty with affect regulation, they often do not take into account the social pressures of maintaining a reputation.

Time and again I watched the students in my groups fail to utilize the strategies they were taught as they cycled in and out of lock-up. When they were faced with ongoing and real threats to their reputation, fighting back was not just a question of managing anger. To these boys, “anger management” can be another example of how the rest of the world doesn’t understand their dilemma.

Needless to say, clinicians like myself who facilitate these groups often struggle with burnout, and both parties can feel like failures perpetually frustrated with the other.

As with any form of effective treatment, the messages clinicians deliver have to be relevant to the lived experience of our patients. These youth are in a terrible bind: Fight or be shamed. If we, as clinicians in the juvenile justice system, fail to recognize this predicament, our interventions will be ineffective and our patients will feel unheard.

It is frustrating to be told you have “anger issues” when in fact you are following the example of those around you, including athletes and celebrities. With the current national attention on violence prevention, it is a glaring omission that we do not systematically train clinicians about the culture of violence in which so many youth are forced to live.

The principle of using evidence-based practices has forced health care to empirically support its methodology. We need to take this one step further. Treatments and models of care must be contextually relevant.

In order to decrease crime and violence in this country, clinicians must acknowledge and understand the code of the street. The work we have done through the Cambridge Safety Net Collaborative on the Fight Navigator curriculum integrates the lived experiences of youth into a violence prevention program.

The curriculum was developed through focus groups with mostly urban youth of color. They described strategies that work to respond to a threat in a manner that avoids violence and allows them to maintain a reputation.

In the same way that we know that talking about abstinence alone is not an effective way to prevent teen pregnancy, assuming that young people from dangerous neighborhoods can always “just walk away” will not reduce violence.

Cure Violence is a program that has also demonstrated success in reducing violence, by focusing on interrupting the transmission of violence with a public health approach. If we can intensify our efforts to provide tactics for effective de-escalation in this demographic, we could potentially keep a number of young people from entering the juvenile justice system.

Dr. James Barrett is the director of school-based programs at the Cambridge Health Alliance and an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He also serves as the clinical coordinator of the Cambridge Safety Net Collaborative with the Cambridge Police and is the author of the Fight Navigator violence prevention curriculum.

Dr. Elizabeth Janopaul-Naylor is a third-year psychiatry resident at Cambridge Health Alliance, affiliated with Harvard Medical School. She completed her undergraduate studies and medical school training at Brown University.

Screaming Headlines, Hype and PR Stunts Cloud Picture of Youth Violence in Chicago

By Eric Ferkenhoff and Maryam Jameel 

Tallying Chicago’s violence during the first half of 2012, including a 39 percent jump in murders, it can be difficult to get what criminologist Tracy Siska is talking about.

True, the streets are bloodied by gang warfare, said Siska, head of the Chicago Justice Project, an independent, non-profit research group that analyzes criminal justice data. The numbers don’t lie; there had been 260-plus murders through the end of June, up 72 over the same period last year. And overnight Tuesday, two girls 12, and 13, became the latest child victims of the gunfire here. Neither were thought to be intended targets, but rather were victims of errant gunfire just days after the release of a University of California Davis study showing the prevalence of stray-bullet victims.

But Siska has argued much of the media is playing the hype game, skewing reality for Chicagoans or observers by screaming with headlines about more city children getting murdered this public school year than any year since 2008 – the first full year of the recession – and countless stories of overnight mayhem suffered in many Chicago neighborhoods.

There has been a parade of stories – ones Siska would agree should and must be told. But lost is perspective, he said. There’s a breathless quality to the pieces, Siska argued, and the city has gotten panicky with headlines like this in the Chicago Tribune on June 29: “Girl slain selling candy is latest victim of Chicago’s homicide surge” – or this banner from the Sun-Times on July 8: “Chicago Under Fire: This is Genocide.”

His point is not to cut slack to city officials, who are getting an earful from key aldermen, other lawmakers, community groups, residents and the media. This is their city; they chose the spotlight and need to deal with the glare.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel acknowledged as much in a recent interview with CBS: “I can’t create an island… So the decisions in Washington do matter. But where I used to as a mayor rely on Washington, I’m going to try to come up with different strategies to do a break out, because I’m not going to get stuck in their disfunctionality, and I’m not going to get caught in the fact that the state, they have their own budget issues.”

For police Supt. Garry McCarthy’s part, he told reporters this week that while crime is certainly down – and by a lot – since the peak in 1994, when there were nearly 950 murders, he is not satisfied by his own watch. Crime is sliding, he said, and progress is being made. But McCarthy said he wouldn’t call it success at this point.

Siska wants the stories to include context – such as putting some of the blame for an overall jump in homicides from year to year on the warm winter months that stretched the average killing season. Still, he acknowledges it’s difficult to ignore comparisons that put Chicago’s crime – a calculation that factors high poverty, low educational attainment, sharp class divides and stubborn segregation – in a harsh light. Take, for example, Houston, he said. It has a similar number of residents spread over a larger area with a much lower crime and murder rate and less than half the number of officers policing the city.

As well, Siska and some police on the street worry the public relations throttling of Mayor Emanuel and police Supt. McCarthy is forcing officials, locally and on national television, to make big promises and be far too reactionary in planning a combat strategy. Among other things, the city plans to invest $4 million to shore up deteriorating businesses and buildings that attract squatters, dealers and violence; a $1 million grant to the controversial CeaseFire group made famous in the documentary “The Interrupters;” and the training of about 500 new officers.

Gone are the days of quick-hit strike forces that swarmed gang and violence hotspots and became such a signature of Chicago policing under previous superintendents. In their place are more patrols – a slower, get-to-know-you strategy that, according to some officers and experts, could pay dividends down the line by familiarizing residents and cops that police them but lacks the fast fix that seems so needed now.

“I have no evidence we are under or short on cops,” says Siska, who said the number of sworn Chicago cops is actually lower than the 13,500 on the books. “If we are, someone is going to have to prove to me that there was some study that detailed the exact number of officers Chicago is supposed to have based on calculations dealing with crime, population shifts, calls for service, etc.”

The reasoning recalls a speech by McCarthy soon after NATO held its summit here in late May – when flare-ups between protestors and police got widespread attention, and just as the violence seemed to be boiling. Standing before a crowd of moneyed and influential guests at the Chicago Club, McCarthy said Chicago was facing a “perception problem,” that focused too much on the negative without giving good results – such as drops in most major crime categories – their due.

Siska would get some agreement from Arthur Lurigio, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago. Both echo a study by the Justice Policy Institute that found more police does not equal less crime – and in fact, could swell court costs as minor offenses arrested to blunt the major crime clog an already full court system.

“There’s not a powerful point-by-point linear relationship between number of police officers and crime rate,” Lurigio said. “It’s more complicated than that… You can expect that if you add more and more police, streets will get safer and safer and safer. And there’s also trade-offs. I’m not saying this about Chicago because I think Chicago’s  been under-staffed, but if you add enough police officers to the force, then you start encroaching upon people’s liberties, police presences could be regarded as intrusive, unfriendly, creating a view of the public that they’re being scrutinized unnecessarily and excessively by the police.”

The bigger issue, according to Siska, Lurigio and some police supervisors, as well as cops on the beat, is deployment – an issue that is touched on but not factoring large into the debate or frenzy over the spike in killings.

“Its not only how many police officers you add to the force,” Lurigio said, “but where you assign them and what you assign them to do that really makes a difference. So adding new police officers I think is a good idea, but where you assign them, and the kinds of activities that they engage in, is equally as important as the actual numbers.”

One supervisor said many of the moves by the Mayor’s office and police brass is PR that will come back to haunt the city going forward. McCarthy’s training of up to 500 new officers, for example, won’t show a real impact for another year – long after this season of violence has passed – since it usually takes six months to complete the academy, and officers are then assigned for 12 weeks to field training officers to get a feel for the beat.

“You have some people [at the training academy] with very minimal time on the job and streets teaching new recruits,” he said. “Instructors should be rotated in an out of the academy to keep their skills updated. Sending them out for a week here and there for Operation Protect Youth doesn’t cut it.”

Adding to the problem, this supervisor said, is that police are defeating their own argument against specialized quick-strike units by how the new officers are used.

“They started doing it, just too late,” he said of the hiring. “Manpower is the key issue. Even when they try to argue that the additional resources deployed to [the South Side and West Side] are causing a decrease in homicides, they are reinforcing the argument that saturating areas with officers has an impact on crime. Same holds true for their overtime initiative: They are sending them en masse to help control specific areas, clearly showing that it is not about strategies or computer simulations, but boots on the ground.”

But while that philosophy gets credence with Siska and Lurigio on some fronts, it doesn’t convince them on all points. Take homicides, which are causing such frenzy here, according to Lurigio: “People don’t understand, in general, that a homicide is one of the least preventable crimes,” he said. “And they’re the most important metric on which we evaluate the police overall in their performance. But homicides are now unpreventable. It’s easier to prevent burglaries and car theft and vandalism.”

But he counters his own point by noting that some 60 percent of murders in this city are thought to be gang-related, “in which a motive is known. It’s very important that the police concentrate on those, because there’s some chance that they can prevent gang-related homicides.”

Eric Ferkenhoff is the editor of The Chicago Bureau.

Maryam Jameel is a writor for The Chicago Bureau.

Photo by The Chicago Bureau’s Natalie Krebs

Violence Forum Unites Teens, Experts

A scarlet red electric guitar would normally seem out of place at a youth violence forum, but Monday evening the bloodstained instrument served as a symbolic reminder of a young man’s life cut short.

Eighteen-year-old Blake Jimerson clutched it in homage to his fallen friend Katerius “Terry” Moody throughout the “Just Squash It” Emergency Town Hall Meeting, an event prompted in part by the murder of the Benjamin E. Mays High School graduate on June 26th at an East Point block party. The 18-year-old crooner was fatally shot during an impromptu performance; four other teens were wounded.

“This is the last thing Terry had on him before he died,” Jimerson, a recent Washington High School graduate, told the audience of more than 100 about his friend who had planned to enlist in the U.S. Marines next month. “The blood is still on it.”

The meeting at B.E.S.T. Academy, an all-male middle school in Northwest Atlanta, was touted as an opportunity for Metro Atlanta youth -- and those who work directly with them -- to come together to propose solutions. Nearly two dozen young people sat on the stage alongside adult panelists, a mix of representatives from the court system, government agencies and non-profit youth organizations. Organizers took comments and questions from the audience. Attendees also had the opportunity to share their thoughts via short survey forms that organizers say will eventually be compiled into a report to be shared with local policy makers and elected officials.

Fourteen year-old Kasadera Todd says the event lived up to its billing.

“I think it turned out great; everyone’s voice got heard,” he said. “I hope the politicians are listening so that they can go back to their office with ideas on ways to help the community.”

Byron Watkins could relate to the topic. Watkins, now a Boy Scout at B.E.S.T., says he and his mother relocated to Atlanta from California to evade violence.

“I’m only 14 years old and I was stabbed,” said Watkins, “People don’t believe me when I say that I have been stabbed before but it’s true. I learned a lot tonight about how parents should act. Parents need to take the lead more with their kids.”

Parent Margaret McBride, who attended with her daughter Sydnee, was equally pleased with the outcome.

“I think this can be the start of a movement to protect our kids from violence,” she said, “I was moved by what I heard; specially the passion I heard from the kids.”

More cohesiveness among youth organizations, implementing strategies to improve communication between parents and children, expanded mentoring programs and brainstorming on ways for well-meaning adults to become more approachable to the youth they serve were among the many solutions suggested at the event that lasted more than two hours.

Untreated mental health issues and limited educational opportunities were among the reasons cited as the root causes of youth violence, along with unaddressed emotions related to chronic poverty, lack of parental involvement, physical/mental abuse and an overall lack of community support.

“Violence is the same as teen pregnancy, teen abortion and low educational attainment – it’s just a symptom of a bigger problem,” said panelist Dr. Eddie Morris, founder and president of Men of Destiny, a non-profit organization that enhances the educational experiences of African-American children. “A lot of these kids [who are violent] are angry because they’re born into poverty; some of them are angry because they don’t have a relationship with their parents, some are angry because they were molested. We need to talk to our kids and tell them that they were born with a purpose in this world.”

Panelist Ruby Thomas, a juvenile judge pro tem in DeKalb County, feels video games contribute to the problem.

“Video games desensitize you from the reality of injuring somebody, never to be seen again,” she said. “We can’t control our kids, but we can support them.”

Organizer Tanya Culbreth, the home-school parent liaison for B.E.S.T.,  says she coordinated the event as a follow up to the town hall meeting Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed called, following a recent outbreak of teen violence during the popular Screen On The Green event at Atlanta’s Piedmont Park.  She felt that forum did not include the voices of enough young people and adults who run youth organizations.

Culbreth says she’s optimistic that Monday’s event will help mobilize and inspire members of the community to get more involved with preventing youth violence. “This is not the end [of the dialogue],” she said. “This is only the beginning.”


Chandra R. Thomas is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 Atlanta. She has also served as a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow at Atlanta’s Carter Center and as a Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow at The Ohio State University.

Teen’s Murder Prompts Town Hall Meeting

Eighteen-year-old Katerius Moody was in the midst of belting out a verse of the song he’d penned with fellow Polo Boys singing group members, when bullets peppered the crowd during their performance three weeks ago at an East Point block party. The young crooner, a recent Mays High School graduate, was gunned down and four other teens were wounded before he could finish the lyrics to “We Go.”

The June 26th tragedy, and others like it, have inspired an Atlanta community leader to call an emergency town hall meeting Monday, where she says “frontline” child services workers, local leaders and, more importantly, young people themselves, will get to suggest ways to curb youth violence in metro Atlanta. Atlanta Public Schools staffer Tanya Culbreth contends Moody’s death and a recent outbreak of teen violence during the popular Screen On The Green event at Atlanta’s Piedmont Park inspired her to coordinate the event. Culbreth says she wasn’t satisfied with the outcome of a similar town hall meeting Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed called following the Piedmont Park incident.

Tanya Culbreth organized Monday's “Squash It” Emergency Town Hall Meeting.

“I applaud the mayor for calling an emergency meeting, but there wasn’t enough representation there from young people and those of us who work directly with young people every day,” contends Culbreth, the Home-School Parent Liaison for B.E.S.T. Academy, an all-male middle school  in Northwest Atlanta. “We’re the experts and more of our voices need to be heard. We just walked away (from the meeting) feeling like there needed to be more conversation.”

The response has been overwhelming, she says, to the event, slated for 6-8 p.m. Monday at B.E.S.T. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, community activist Brenda Muhammad and famed civil rights activist Al Sharpton’s brother Kenneth Glascow are among the scheduled  participants. Organizers will also circulate surveys asking input from the audience on ways to alleviate the violence problem. The findings will be compiled into a comprehensive report that will be submitted to local policy makers.

“It’s about time we hear from the kids who live in the communities affected by this violence every day,” says event moderator Erik Underwood. “This is an opportunity for them to speak to the community, elected officials and policy makers. We need to stop talking about what we need to do and take the suggestions made and implement them. This is going to be great; there’s going to be a lot of good to come from this.”

Shooting victim Moody’s best friend and bandmate Anthony Ray, 18, of Southwest Atlanta’s Adamsville community, also plans to address the audience.

“For me it took losing my best friend to see that this violence cannot continue; we don’t need anymore people hurt or killed like this,” he says. “I want (young) people to realize that violence is not the way to go.”

Culbreth says the event will emphasize solutions to youth violence; not the problems.

Adds Ray of his friend, who was scheduled to join the U.S. Marines with him next month. “It hurts me to lose him; we were so close,” he says.  “The outcome has been all positive though because him dying is bringing people together.”

The “Squash It” Emergency Town Hall Meeting is Monday July 19, 6-8 p.m. at B.E.S.T. Academy, 1890 Donald Lee Hollowell Pkwy., Atlanta, Ga. 30318.


Chandra R. Thomas is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 Atlanta. She has served as a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow at Atlanta's Carter Center and as a Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow at The Ohio State University.