Program helps diminish school violence

  • Safety first: Tacony Academy and First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter high schools, both run by American Paradigm Educational Management Organization, offered all of its students an “alternatives to violence” training program.

  • Safety first: Tacony Academy and First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter high schools, both run by American Paradigm Educational Management Organization, offered all of its students an “alternatives to violence” training program.

When the school year be­gins, it’s a time rife with so­cial stress for most stu­dents. Repu­ta­tions are im­port­ant to get clear right away and most kids, ad­mit­tedly or not, just want to do what they can to feel com­fort­able and settled. For stu­dents, it’s just that simple. For school ad­min­is­trat­ors, however, it’s nev­er that cut and dry, and es­tab­lish­ing an en­vir­on­ment that feels safe for all is key.

For those ad­min­is­ter­ing at Ta­cony Academy and First Phil­adelphia Pre­par­at­ory Charter high schools, both run by Amer­ic­an Paradigm Edu­ca­tion­al Man­age­ment Or­gan­iz­a­tion, this happened in the first four days of the 2013-2014 aca­dem­ic school year. All of their stu­dents, grades nine through 12, spent those days en­ga­ging in an “al­tern­at­ives to vi­ol­ence” train­ing pro­gram.

The im­port­ance of cre­at­ing a safe com­munity was pivotal to ad­min­is­trat­ors when they made this de­cision to bring in 70 trained adult fa­cil­it­at­or-vo­lun­teers from the Al­tern­at­ives to Vi­ol­ence Pro­ject in­stead of op­er­at­ing a “nor­mal” first week. It was ac­tu­ally at the corner­stone of their think­ing.

“[We want] our stu­dents to trans­form com­munity,” noted Ta­cony Academy Charter School’s CEO, Ster­ling Gar­ris. “It’s not that we have vi­ol­ence in our school, per se,” Gar­ris con­tin­ued, “but the pur­pose is that they learn the lan­guage to de­fuse situ­ations.”

Star­ted by Quakers in 1975, AVP began as an al­tern­at­ive to a vi­ol­ence train­ing pro­gram for pris­on­ers so that they could learn con­flict-res­ol­u­tion skills in or­der to de­fuse vi­ol­ent situ­ations. Now, AVP is both a na­tion­al and world­wide as­so­ci­ation of vo­lun­teers who of­fer ex­per­i­en­tial work­shops in con­flict res­ol­u­tion, re­sponses to vi­ol­ence and per­son­al growth.

At first, the high school stu­dents’ re­ac­tion to this type of train­ing was that it wasn’t needed. Seni­or Nas­ir Bould­in thought it was go­ing to be like oth­er anti-vi­ol­ence pro­grams.

“They would tell us what was go­ing on around the world and then we would take turns talk­ing about vi­ol­ence and then dis­cuss that,” Nas­ir said.

Sim­il­arly, seni­or Ma­lina Cro­martie ori­gin­ally didn’t see much reas­on be­hind it.

“Hon­estly, I felt like it would be point­less and that I wouldn’t take any­thing from it,” she ac­know­ledged.

What stu­dents didn’t know in ad­vance was that this wasn’t “reg­u­lar” class. They wer­en’t go­ing to be lec­tured by one adult about vi­ol­ence.

This pro­gram is about “get­ting people to a place where they can re­lax and drop their fronts or im­age or whatever bar­ri­er they put up,” noted Dr. Car­o­lyn Schodt, co­ordin­at­or of the Phil­adelphia chapter of AVP.

“A lar­ger whole is that no one is wrong about how they feel. You might choose your judg­ment or your at­ti­tude but you can’t make up your feel­ings,” Schodt con­tin­ued. “If you are be­com­ing more aware of your feel­ings, that’s a truth­ful place.”

And that is just what Ma­lina ended up ex­per­i­en­cing.

“I real­ized that every­one has what they go through and you really can’t judge someone by how they look,” she said.

Ma­lina found out per­son­al in­form­a­tion about her class­mates that she had nev­er known.

“I was like, ‘I have known you for four years and I nev­er knew that,’ ” she said.

The train­ings were in­ter­spersed with team-build­ing ex­er­cises, per­son­al share-outs and dis­cus­sions about vari­ous ways to re­spond.

“We had ex­amples on the board about how to bet­ter verbally handle situ­ations,” noted seni­or Chris Mc­Gregor, a new stu­dent to TCA, who was re­ferred to as “Clas­sic Chris” dur­ing the train­ings.

Chris ac­tu­ally ac­know­ledged that after the train­ing, he hasn’t been mad at all.

“I have ac­tu­ally stopped and [thought] about stuff,” he said.

One of the things that has helped stu­dents like Chris is the in­tro­duc­tion to con­ver­sa­tion-starter op­tions, like: I feel (in­sert emo­tion) when you say (in­sert word) be­cause it makes me feel (in­sert re­ac­tion). He has seen his class­mates put this phras­ing in­to ac­tion a lot since the train­ing ses­sion.

“My class­mates ac­tu­ally kept those skills that we learned,” an im­pressed Chris notes.

Seni­or Robert Mar­en­bach not only be­nefited from these train­ing ses­sions, he has made ma­jor changes in his own be­ha­vi­or.

“Just the oth­er day, a teach­er called on me and I turned around and re­spon­ded with, ‘What?,’ be­cause I hadn’t fully heard her,” he said.

Rather than ar­gue, Robert’s nor­mal re­ac­tion, he im­me­di­ately apo­lo­gized to her.

“I don’t want to be ar­guing with teach­ers this year,” Robert thought­fully re­spon­ded. “I feel like I think about it a little bit more now that I went through the train­ing.”

Stu­dent re­sponses like Mar­en­bach’s are in­dic­at­ive of what this train­ing is all about.

“[AVP] is fol­low­ing a dream of Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr., who spoke about start­ing a non-vi­ol­ent move­ment based on a com­munity where all people feel safe,” Schodt noted. “These stu­dents are go­ing to be­come peace­ful, groun­ded lead­ers. Like drop­ping a rock in the pond and the circles go out.”

Wheth­er it is in the halls of Ta­cony Academy or First Phil­adelphia, the streets of Lawn­crest, where both schools are loc­ated, the lar­ger Phil­adelphia area or bey­ond, be­cause of this train­ing, stu­dents can be­gin to prac­tice peace­ful com­mu­nic­a­tion in or­der to make both them­selves and oth­ers feel safe.

“There is no one who can con­vince me that any­one wants to feel un­safe,” noted Sta­cey Cruise, CEO of Amer­ic­an Paradigm Schools. “This is what AVP is all about.” ••

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