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CHICAGO, May 16 (Reuters Health) – Adolescents who are exposed to violence,
abuse alcohol or drugs and have only one parent are at increased risk of killing
someone, Dr. Robert Zagar and colleagues from the University of Illinois reported
here at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting.

Dr. Zagar’s team used data from the juvenile court system in Chicago to develop a
set of tools to predict the risk of violence in adolescents that they presented in a
report called “Asking the Right Questions to Find Teenage Killers.”

Mental health professionals, school counselors and youth officers can use the
system to prevent future tragedies like the Columbine High School killings, the
researchers report. “The object is not to label them and punish them, but to find
them and provide them with services,” Dr. Zagar said during a press briefing.

Dr. Zagar and his colleagues compared risk factors for three groups of youth: 101
convicted killers, 101 non-violent youth offenders and a control group of 101 teens
from the community.

Adolescents with violence in the family, child abuse, gang membership, and alcohol
and drug use are at twice the risk of killing someone compared with teenagers
without these risk factors, Dr. Zagar said. When those factors are combined with
access to weapons, previous arrests, learning problems, and truancy, the teen is
four times more likely to become a killer than other youths, he added.

For those with an arrest record or a history of school suspensions, the warning signs
are obvious. But too often they are missed, Dr. Zagar said. “That means the
psychologist, the parent and the teacher, they all knew these were violent
teenagers,” he said.

His group also measured which prevention programs are most effective. They found
that troubled teens respond to programs that offer incentives to graduate from high
school. The threat of jail time in “three strikes” programs also seems to work, he
added. The findings also show that intensive counseling can be highly effective.

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