On the Path to Solving At-Risk Behavior among Youth

By Suren, Asuncion; Stiefvater, Robert | Parks & Recreation, August 1995 | Go to article overview

On the Path to Solving At-Risk Behavior among Youth


Suren, Asuncion, Stiefvater, Robert, Parks & Recreation


Recent National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) research has indicated that drug use among teens is rising. The rate of murder among those 14 to 17 years of age has more than doubled since 1986; and nationally, on average, six teens die violently each day. "During the past six years, there has been a significant increase in juvenile crime in the most serious categories: murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault; homicide arrests of kids ages 10 through 14 rose from 194 to 301 between 1988 and 1992" (Gibbs, 1994, p.61).

These data, although alarming, are not new events, in fact, devastating conditions confronting youth -- child labor laws, a failing educational system, molestation, parental abuse, and suicide, for example -- have filled the airwaves and printed news for decades.

Webster's Dictionary defines children as innocent, immature, and lacking in complexity; clearly that is not the case in today's society. Popular magazines, newspapers, and television commentaries characterize children as "killers," "drug dealers," and "gang bangers." Early literature referred to this phenomenon as "juvenile delinquency," then "at risk," and presently "high at risk," suggesting that the problems with youth are worsening.

Southwick and Zahorodnyj (1992) defined at-risk youth as those who meet one or more of the following criteria: incidence of previous drug use, history of family violence, previous runaway, have attempted suicide, "high risk" neighborhood of residence, truancy, and criminal history. Coleman and Sarmanian included economically disadvantaged, physically disabled, throwaway/homeless (as opposed to runaway), teenaged parent, and psychiatric hospitalized (1992, p.64).

The need for research is often gauged by the intensity of the phenomenon in question. The intensity of youth as "at risk" of alcoholism, drug abuse, academic delinquency, and death has led to a nation-wide search for answers and solutions. Whyte (1992), in a survey of park and recreation professionals and educators, identified a number of key issues and trends impacting local recreation and park agencies in the 1990s. That study concluded that park and recreation services would be called on to play a greater social services role with special emphasis on disadvantaged populations.

At the 1994 NRPA Congress, practitioners, researchers, and educators came together for the first Research Roundtable discussion regarding recreation's impact on various social problems. From that discussion, issues relating to at-risk youth and recreation's approach to addressing those issues were examined. Suren (1994) revealed the need for a more in-depth approach to practical application of existing theoretical models, establishing recreation's role in the areas of prevention and intervention, and developing human service partnerships.

The 1980s' Approach to Researching Youth At Risk: A Decade of Awareness

Since Luther Gulick stated that "the playground is cheaper than the reformatory," the field of recreation has made attempts to positively impact the problem of delinquent behavior exemplified by youth. The 1980s, in particular, brought a proliferation of literature -- book chapters, anecdotal articles, and research studies -- to investigate leisure behavior and the social competence of at-risk populations. Kanters and Anderson (1989) addressed the prevalence of negative leisure pursuits among youth through an examination of cognitive structures of leisure behavior, and determined that an understanding of the foundations of adolescent leisure behavior may assist practitioners in identifying alternative opportunities for leisure satisfaction.

Kleiber and Rickards (1985) postulated that although traditional social activities may improve social skills and positive associations with legitimate activities, they generally fail to substitute for the pleasures found in some illegitimate activities, indicating the need for effective recreation programs for the treatment and prevention of delinquency. …

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