By Andrew Stern
CHICAGO (Reuters) - A program teaching basic social skills to troubled youths in Chicago produced a significant drop in violence in a city where crime has been spiking, researchers said on Friday.
The program - Becoming a Man-Sports Edition - was tested on more than 800 boys aged 12 to 17 who had arrest records and were performing poorly in school.
There was a 44 percent decrease in violent crime arrests among boys participating in the yearlong program that began in 2009, said Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago's Crime Lab, which oversaw the study.
The boys also performed better in school, a benefit that persisted into the following year, he said.
"I think it is fair to say, in the area of crime policy, there is a lot of skepticism about our ability to reduce crime through social programming," Ludwig said in an interview.
"But we got these ridiculous reductions in violence," he said.
More than 610 Chicago Public School students were shot between September 2008 and April 2010, according to the lab.
A "social autopsy" by the Crime Lab in 2008 showed "a large share of homicides of Chicago youth stem from impulsive behavior - young people with access to guns, massively over-reacting to some aspect of their social environment," the university said.
The program for the Chicago schoolboys used exercises meant to help them better interpret others' intentions, understand the repercussions of violent acts and tone down emotions to resolve conflicts more peacefully.
In one exercise, the boys were paired off and one was given a ball and the other was told to get it. After five minutes of fighting over the ball, the boys were made to realize they could have merely asked for it.
In another scenario, the boys were taken through the potential repercussions of breaking a fire extinguisher at school out of anger, which might cost their parents money as wells as their job if they had to miss work.
Chicago has seen a 37 percent rise in the number of murders to 259 so far this year and a few other U.S. cities have experienced a rise in homicides, putting pressure on mayors and police departments to stop the carnage.
The $1 million program was funded by the university, several Chicago charitable foundations, and power provider Exelon Corp.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu)