Becoming A Man

Promising Sports Program Cuts Violent Crime Arrests for Students

Youth counseling and sports training in Chicago Public Schools could drastically reduce student violence and arrests, according to one of the first clinical studies of in-school mentoring programs. 

The program is Becoming A Man--Sports Edition, or BAM. It mentors high school boys in group sessions during school, developing integrity and finding healthy ways to channel anger. After school, the teens are trained in Olympic sports--including archery, handball, martial arts, and wrestling--activities few had any experience in. 

Participants in the program had 44 percent fewer arrests for violent crime and 36 percent fewer arrests for other crimes, according to upcoming results from the University of Chicago Crime Lab. The year-long study, which followed students in the 2009-2010 school year, was one of the most rigorous yet on anti-violence programs.

It followed about 800 CPS students involved in the program, and compared them to students with similar backgrounds who were not involved--a control group. The average participant had missed six weeks of school and had a D+ average. By the end of the program, the University estimates participants had a 23 percent greater chance of graduating than those in the control group. 

We spoke with Sara Heller, a doctoral fellow at the Crime Lab who is leading analysis of the BAM program.

This is the largest clinical study of an anti-violence program. Why haven’t there been many controlled studies like this before?

It involves a lot of partnerships between the city and researchers, and requires a city with real data infrastructure that we can take advantage of. Without that, you have to survey youth, which is really hard—you can ask them about crime, but they might not tell you the truth. And you need a city brave enough to want to see the real answer. After all, the program may not work. Chicago is very committed to seeing this through.

Were you expecting the drop in violent crimes among participants?

We never thought a one-year program would have such dramatic results. I was shocked. We were skeptical that a social program would reduce violence. We just had no evidence. The fact that we could intervene in non-academic skills and have such massive decreases in violent crime arrests is very surprising. It’s suggestive of the fact we don’t do this kind of social instruction outside the first few grade levels, and maybe there’s room to.

This is a lever we haven’t pushed on much before. There’s a huge opportunity here.

What is the social science behind why social skills lead to these kinds of results?

The teen brain hasn’t fully developed its executive control function—the part that stops you and says think about what you’re doing. We see this over and over in youth homicides. Two groups will argue over who stole a bike, and they egg each other on, and in 15 seconds, one pulls his gun out and pulls the trigger. We’re teaching them to turn that 15 seconds into 30 seconds, into 30 minutes, and to control the anger. It doesn’t have to be an amazingly intense intervention to extend that window, as we’ve seen.

And how does sports training reinforce that?

The sports coaches are all trained in the BAM principles, so they enforce that. And the kids are learning the focus and discipline to learn new skills, because these are all non-traditional sports. 

View a video about the BAM program, produced by Youth Guidance, the non-profit that manages BAM: