On Monday, Bob Woodson and his team of youth mentors, along with school administrators, law enforcement and government leaders, held a summit on youth violence and the success of Woodson’s Violence Free Zones. Those in attendance at the Washington, D.C. conference testified to the efficacy of Violence Free Zones, citing a 32 percent reduction in violent incidents in Milwaukee Public Schools, a reduction in car thefts of more than 60 percent around high schools in Richmond, Virginia, and in general, a reduction in violence, suspensions, and disruptions in schools.

Violence Free Zones staff train youth mentors who come from the same cultural zip code as the children they are trying to help – many of whom are involved in gang activity and drug use. Bob Woodson, President of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, writes:

School systems rely almost exclusively upon metal detectors, cameras, and security guards or police to secure the schools. While these external approaches have their place, they are limited in the control they can exert. They may suppress some behaviors, but they do not confront the causes of those behaviors.

Violence Free Zones work because they get at the root of the problem by providing solid role models for the children who, prior to the mentor program, turned to gang activity and drug use. The mentors teach problem-solving skills, model successful behavior, and are available 24 hours a day. Not only has the Violence Free Zone program made a significant impact on reducing violence, it has also raised the academic achievement of those involved.

Researchers at Baylor University conducted a case study of the impact of the VFZ program on public schools in Milwaukee, and found that the academic achievement of students in the VFZ schools had risen nearly 4 percent. Part of this increase may have been due to a reduction in suspensions. As a result of the VFZ program, suspensions in Milwaukee public schools declined 37 percent. Those extra days spent in school likely contributed to the rise in academic achievement.

Students in Richmond, Virginia also benefited from the Violence Free Zones. Students in VFZ schools saw an 8 percent increase in GPA, and a 55 percent reduction in suspensions.

In many of the nation’s largest cities, school violence and low academic achievement persists. In Washington, D.C. for example, 1 in 8 children reports being threatened with a deadly weapon in the last 12 months. During the 2007-08 school year, there were 912 incidents of violence reported to the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. It is impossible for a child to learn in a dangerous school environment.

Every school and every city is different, and Woodson’s distinctive approach to tackling school violence meets the unique needs of students and schools across the country. While his approach meets unique needs, the VFZ approach of mentoring is entirely replicable in other troubled districts across the county.