Physical and Psychological Safety

Physical and psychological safety is fundamental to attract young people to programs and to keep them coming back. This requires both creating an environment that is safe, as well as handling conflicts among participants as they arise.

The objective of some programs is to enable youth to just participate in safe environments free from pressures associated with violence and substance abuse. In many cases, accessibility makes a difference to safety, which in turn often affects participation. Some programs or facilities are too far for youth to get to conveniently, requiring a bus ride or long walk through uncertain neighborhoods. Other clubs or programs may be only a few blocks from a young person’s home but require navigating hostile gang territory. Hours of operation matter, too. Programs unavailable until after six in the evening, for example, have difficulty attracting youth at all (Cahill et al., 1993). Programs operating only one evening a week or that are closed on weekends also seem insufficient to sustain youth interest. Most appealing from youth’s perspective were organizations that provided reliable access to adults and safe space to meet daily and on weekends (McLaughlin, 2000).

Sometimes maintaining an atmosphere of safety requires denying some young people participation. Directors describe the process as a sort of triage, in which difficult decisions are sometimes made to deny needy and deserving youth a place in the organization for the sake of the whole. For example, the director of HOME in Alameda, California, pays close attention to school records and will not accept (or continue to involve) youth with consistent records of failure. These youth, she feels, could erode the spirit of entrepreneurship and responsibility that is the group’s signature. The director of East Oakland’s Youth Development Center has more pragmatic concerns—the safety of the young people who come through the door every afternoon. The director explained that they could not serve everyone and still have an environment that is safe and supportive for everyone.1 This means that the most needy youth—youth of most concern to society—are sometimes excluded. It also means that youth who could benefit from and contribute to the organization may be denied a space simply because the program is full.

Several prevention studies have also documented a negative effect of programs that focus exclusively on adolescents already engaged in risky


From field notes collected by committee member Milbrey McLaughlin.

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