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At-Risk Youth in Schools: A Wraparound Delinquency Prevention Program Produces Disappointing Results

A rigorous evaluation of a well-grounded pilot program to boost the school performance and behavior of at-risk youth and improve safety in Palm Beach, Florida, schools revealed few positive or negative effects.
Date Published
September 10, 2020

On paper, a “wraparound” approach to managing student delinquency while improving school safety makes perfect sense. The idea is to surround at-risk youth with coordinated resources, with school staff, law enforcement, the courts, and service providers all delivering support. The approach focuses on accountability, rehabilitation, and tailored services for targeted students. The goal is to reduce offending and behavioral problems while improving student success and making schools safer. 

In practice, however, researchers have found that even a well-designed, well-supported wraparound program can fall short, at least initially.

A pilot initiative in the School District of Palm Beach County — the School Safety and Student Performance Program — proceeded from the premise that improved school safety requires closer attention to law enforcement- and justice-involved youth. The program was a theoretically well-supported set of interventions that engaged various agencies at four county schools. It was designed to identify ways to discourage delinquency and encourage academic success among at-risk youth without being punitive. Another goal was to improve the overall safety of the school setting. (See sidebar for the elements of the experimental intervention.)

Six collaborating partner entities supported the School Safety and Student Performance Program, affording “a unique opportunity to develop a promising initiative” for promoting school safety, the study report noted. The supporting local and state entity partners were the county school district, Florida State University (FSU), the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, the Palm Beach Public School Police Department, the Parent-Child Center, and the Drug Abuse Treatment Association.

The FSU team explained the theoretical foundation of the multi-element, multi-agency School Safety and Student Performance Program intervention:

[T]he guiding logic is that the greatest improvements are likely to result from implementing an individualized service plan tailored to each student’s identified needs across multiple domains. Put differently, the central premise is that a team-based approach can result in identifying the precise combinations of services, treatment, and activities that are most likely to help youth improve their behavior and academic performance.[1]

That study on the School Safety and Student Performance Program’s “causal logic” also noted the predicted value of synergistic agency collaboration for school-based youth outcomes:

The primary goal of having meetings with a school-based team of multisystem representatives…is to provide youth with access to people who have knowledge and expertise in a broad range of service areas. In addition, the multisystem team approach can provide a more holistic and informed needs assessment for youth.[2]

The targeted at-risk student population comprised five groups:

  1. Youth referred to school administrators by police in lieu of arrest.
  2. Youth awaiting disposition from juvenile court, having been in contact with police.
  3. Juveniles committing a first-time offense, whom police had issued a civil citation in lieu of arrest.
  4. Diverted youth who were referred by juvenile court after arrest.
  5. Youth on probation.

A Rigorous Evaluation Finding No Consistent Effects

To measure the program’s impact against its ambitious goals and implementation plan, a research team led by Florida State University (FSU), working with the Palm Beach schools, performed a rigorous evaluation supported by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). The study measured program effects at the student and school levels and assessed how well the program’s implementation matched the plan.

Evaluation of Program Effects on Students and Schoolwide Effects

The outcome evaluation, evaluating the program’s impact on targeted at-risk groups, employed a randomized controlled trial. The study randomly assigned students to either an intervention group or a control group, with control group members receiving none of the program interventions. Participating students were all volunteers.

The study found that the Palm Beach schools intervention was “well-grounded in theory and research on adolescent behavior,” but overall, “there were no consistent beneficial or adverse effects of the intervention on either student or school outcomes,” the final research report said.

Although the outcome evaluation found little schoolwide effect from the intervention, at the school level it did find limited potential benefits in terms of teachers’ and parents’ perceptions of outcomes, including absenteeism, truancy, and school climate.

Aspects of the FSU team’s analysis suggested that the program may have been “partially effective for some of the student participants,” the final report said. For example, juvenile committing a first-time offense participating in the program, a study subpopulation, had improved delinquency-related outcomes but also had more school absences. Youth on juvenile probation who participated in the program had improved justice system and behavior outcomes, the team found.

Process Evaluation

In the process evaluation, the researchers reported on potential positive intervention impacts suggested by program staff. The final report noted, however, that most of those impacts were not rigorously assessed in the outcome evaluation. “As such the potential impacts should be interpreted simply as dimensions along which the interventions may have been effective,” the report said. Those perceived positive impacts included:

  • Program staff felt the program delivered improved advocacy for at-risk students.
  • Program staff felt the program enabled schools to intervene earlier and more effectively with low-risk youth.
  • Program staff said the intervention caused some youth to be more likely to report planned crime or violence that they heard about.

The team also noted that in some respects, the efforts and feedback of researchers who performed the program evaluation improved program implementation.  

Study Limitations

The researchers also identified a study shortcoming that may have contributed to the finding on key measures that the interventions had no effect. The team noted it “faced significant challenges” in implementing the program in four schools and coordinating among the schools, juvenile court, and probation offices. When there was greater buy-in from principals and other staff, better implementation was more likely.

Importantly, the research team also noted impediments to achieving fidelity to the program design. Staff hiring challenges delayed full implementation, and staffing levels were a recurring issue. Moreover, the report said, “some aspects of the program design proved more difficult to implement than anticipated and so occurred with less frequency than was originally envisioned. Team meetings, for example, did not occur for some youth.”

Those fidelity challenges informed a determination by CrimeSolutions, an NIJ program that rates the effectiveness of criminal justice programs and practices,[3] that there was insufficient evidence to support a program rating.

In the end, the FSU team called for more research on how to use school settings and school hours to identify and assist youth at risk for delinquency. Many studies have focused on the traits of at-risk youth, the team noted, but there is a need for more research on best interventions in school settings. The researchers also called for further research to identify conditions in which interventions like the Palm Beach study can be effective.

The team’s policy recommendations included more school-court collaboration to support at-risk youth and link them to existing community and school services.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ grant 2014-CK-BX-0018, awarded to Florida State University. The article is based on the report “The Palm Beach County School Safety and Student Performance Partnership Project: Final Research Report” (2019), D. Mears (Principal Investigator), S. Siennick (Principal Investigator), G. Pesta, A. Montes, S. Brown, and N. Collier. The team also produced a companion report, “The Causal Logic Model of the Palm Beach County School Safety and Student Performance Program.”

  1. A collaboration between the schools, the schools’ police department, juvenile court, and service providers.
  2. A focus on at-risk youth, including those who had contact with the police or were involved with the juvenile justice system.
  3. Placement of juvenile probation officers in schools, along with family counselors and case managers.
  4. Development of intervention plans for youth assigned to the intervention group.
  5. Voluntary participation by students, with assents provided.
  6. Identification of services that go beyond existing services to target the student population.
  7. The goal is not to be punitive, but to identify ways to reduce delinquency or misconduct and improve school safety and academic performance.

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Date Published: September 10, 2020