Colorado State University faculty awarded grant to study youth violence prevention

Three faculty researchers from Colorado State University have received a Spencer Foundation Small Research Grant of $49,995 to examine the post-high school effects of a high school-based prevention program.

anne williford, jamie yoder, and lilyana ortega
Anne Williford, associate professor and doctoral program director, and Jamie Yoder, associate professor, both in the School of Social Work, and Lilyana Ortega, assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

The researchers will use the funding to evaluate the impact of “Sources of Strength,” a prevention program that aims to use peer social networks to change school culture. It is designed to help high school students enhance healthy coping skills, develop help-seeking habits, and form positive relationships with other youth and adults.

Originally created for suicide prevention, the program is being tested by the CSU researchers for impacts on bullying, sexual violence, and substance use because all of these behaviors share risk factors, which increase the likelihood for a person to develop these problems. Sources of Strength is designed to offset these shared risk factors by increasing protective factors, which can reduce or mitigate risk, in students’ lives.

Focus on prevention to help young adults avoid behavioral problems before they begin

“Gender-based violence and bullying are common during adolescence and often contribute to substance use and mental health challenges that can be an ongoing problem for many people well into adulthood,” Williford said.

“This program is rooted in prevention science and we know prevention works,” said Williford. “We are examining this particular program to see if it will help young people avoid negative outcomes later in life.”

Williford’s research interests include aggressive behaviors in schools; Yoder’s research interests include youth with sexual and non-sexual behavior problems; and Ortega’s research focuses on prevention and intervention programs geared towards youth.

The CSU researchers will examine the effects of the program for young adults after they have graduated from high school. The first phase of the study will compare life experiences after high school for students who participated in the program versus those who did not.

“Following the youth post-high school–whether that’s into college or into the workforce–will provide us with an opportunity to see how the intervention might impact their lives during this often difficult transition,” said Ortega.

The second phase of the study will examine the paths of an additional group of current high school seniors, who are now serving as “peer leaders,” after they graduate in 2020. These trained peer leaders use their social influence for culture-change campaigns, using positive strength-based messages to impact multiple issues.

“Peer leaders received training and additional adult support compared to their general population peers,” Ortega said, “so examining this group is of particular interest given their more involved roles in the intervention.”

Students may learn to affect positive culture change beyond high school

After exploring what students learned through the Sources of Strength program training, the researchers will also examine how skills learned by students during high school, both from the program and from the peer leaders, have affected the students after graduation.

In addition, the researchers will analyze peer social groups and networks, to see whether what students learn in the program is shared with both new and existing friend groups.

“We often know more about the immediate effects of these types of programs for students,” Yoder said. “Determining the long term impacts, and how students transmit skills into other areas of their lives, can be more challenging.”

“Following these youth over a longer period of time will help us understand how students in peer leadership roles use learned skills,” said Yoder, “and how they apply those skills to life after high school to ultimately contribute to positive cultures and climates.”

The School of Social Work and the Department of Human Development and Family Studies are academic units within CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.