Out of Trouble

A new approach to stopping youth crime and violence

While most studies of gang violence try to identify the factors that lead youth to become involved in crime, one team of researchers in Surrey, British Columbia, turned the issue on its head, trying instead to determine which factors keep youth from engaging in violent and gang-related criminal activities.

Since 2009, Kwantlen Polytechnic University psychology instructor Gira Bhatt has served as principal investigator and project lead for Acting Together, a SSHRC-funded Community-University Research Alliance project aimed at preventing youth gang involvement.

Bhatt and her team tracked and interviewed more than 500 local young people (including 421 high school students and 82 at-risk youth from various community and youth probation centres). Taking an evidence-based approach, the team measured 22 factors to identify character traits that keep youth out of gangs.

Overall, Bhatt’s team found that the key strengths protecting youth from taking a criminal path were gratitude, authenticity, forgiveness, humility and trust.

“Being thankful for your family, for example, is important,” says Bhatt. “One of the major reasons youth avoid committing crimes is they don’t want to cause their family pain.”

Social connections—ties to family, school and peer groups—also proved themselves to be critical.

Acting Together’s partners have been sharing their work through conferences and workshops throughout B.C. schools, meeting with students, teachers and counsellors to increase awareness about the character traits most important in steering young people away from gang life. The project’s outreach efforts have been met with enthusiasm and positive feedback; Bhatt and her colleagues were recently honoured with a B.C. Ministry of Justice’s Crime Prevention and Public Safety Award.

A number of other community partners are also tapping into Bhatt’s research. B.C.’s Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit has, for example, used it to guide outreach and anti-gang programs, including producing an information booklet for parents, and, in late 2013, launching a comprehensive media campaign.

Bhatt says the project would not have been possible without extensive community support. She hopes that Acting Together’s significant level of community involvement can serve as a model for other researchers.

“This is an issue that no one group can handle on its own,” says Bhatt. “Canada is made up of so many different communities. We need to find local solutions for local issues. You can’t keep academia and community separate.”

Research funded by SSHRC: Gang-related violence in Surrey, BC: Protecting youth by identifying modifiable preventative factors and fostering relevant assets