Pliers are great for tightening nuts, but I wouldn't use them to pluck out a splinter. Wrong tool, is what I thought when I read that Seattle...

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Pliers are great for tightening nuts, but I wouldn’t use them to pluck out a splinter.

Wrong tool, is what I thought when I read that Seattle is using police officers to “provide a guiding hand and an open ear” for students at five middle schools.

But whether officers are the right instrument depends on how the job is defined.

The officers are part of the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, which is part of Mayor Greg Nickels’ response to the shootings that ended the lives of five teenagers last year.

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The mayor’s initiative is focused on about 800 middle- school students who are at the highest risk for committing violent acts or being the next victim.

It is a crisis plan, and the officers are its most visible and symbolic component.

I was startled to think the schools were bringing in cops as counselors, but Pegi McEvoy, the district’s safety and security manager, says the officers won’t be counselors, they’ll do crisis management, verbal de-escalation, some motivational talking and a little enforcement.

I wish, though, we’d stop waiting for crises.

What have we not been doing in the years leading up to middle school that would leave so many of our children vulnerable to youth violence?

Well, we know the answers to that question. One is supporting parents who need help and guidance.

That can’t be said often enough, because we seem to have trouble hearing it.

“Let’s empower parents to do their jobs,” Kevin Haggerty told me. I called Haggerty because he has done a lot of research on improving the behavior of adolescents.

Haggerty is a professor in the school of social work at the University of Washington, and assistant director of the Social Development Research Group.

He said we especially need to help “low-income parents who are struggling with difficult neighborhood issues and have a difficult time knowing what to do.”

He said they are good people wanting to do good things, who find themselves more often blamed than helped.

Haggerty was part of a research project between 2000 and 2005 that showed a little help can make a big difference.

Researchers recruited 331 Seattle middle-school students and their parents.

About half were white and half black. Some got a 10-week family training program that included an instructional video, a family workbook and a checklist. Among those, some were contacted by phone every week to assess their progress and encourage them to keep going, others had regular group meetings with other families. A control group received no training.

Researchers compared the groups in 10th grade and found violence was cut in half for African-American kids whose families got help. Participation didn’t affect the white kids.

It’s easy to see why the outcomes were so different if you look at the families recruited into the study.

Income for the African-American families was about a third the income of the white families. Few of the African-American parents had completed college. Most of the white parents had college degrees. A majority of the African Americans and about a quarter of the white Americans were single parents.

All of those factors matter.

We know which circumstances protect children against going astray and which put them at greater risk.

Does a kid feel safe at home, optimistic about the future, connected to family, school and community life? Do his parents communicate well and model responsible behavior? What are the parent’s expectations? What’s the family culture?

Helping kids get more of the good stuff and shielding them from the bad improves their behavior.

Not only that, other studies have shown it improves their academic performance, too.

The earlier the intervention, the greater the rewards.

The mayor’s plan takes the latest research into account and includes a range of responses beyond adding the four officers, but it is focused on kids who’ve already triggered an alarm.

It makes sense to put out the fires of a crisis. It makes even more sense to move the kindling away from the flames before it ignites.

The officers may be right for the job they’ve been given, but we rely on the justice system to solve too many problems that could be avoided if we acted sooner with different tools.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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