Violence-Free Zones making a difference in Racine

By DAVE DALEY | March 17, 2015

Congressman Paul Ryan could not help himself. There he was at a Racine school last week, listening as teachers described a pilot program that helps kids back away from fights and reduces bullying.

“Sounds like Congress,” the Janesville Republican joked. But the pilot project, called Violence-Free Zone, is anything but a joke.

Launched last year at Starbuck Middle School, the program has expanded to two other Racine middle schools and is measurably reducing police calls to the schools, administrators say.

The program uses youth advisors – some just out of high school themselves – who in effect act like big brothers and big sisters to troubled kids, helping to defuse conflict and to keep struggling students on track to graduation.

On Friday, as Ryan toured Starbuck School, he kept a running dialogue with administrators and the three VFZ advisors the school employs. “You’re trying to early identify a kid going in the wrong direction – how do you identify them?” Ryan asked. Answer: the DEW, or dropout early warning system, which uses discipline reports, attendance and tardy slips, and tests that show the kids falling behind.

When teachers and administrators see the red flags, the VFZ program kicks in, Eric Gallien, chief of schools for the Racine Unified School District, told Ryan. 

What are some of the challenges? Ryan asked. “Bullying, missing classwork, outside issues in the home,” said Tenisha Winn, supervisor of Starbuck’s VFZ program. “Some kids feel like they don’t have anybody to talk to.”

Starbuck principal Janet Colvin added that school administrators also rely on experience and intuition. “Just by instinct,” she explained. “Sometimes the teachers just don’t hear their (students) voices.”

The youth advisors in the VFZ program come from the same neighborhoods as the students they are trying to help. “I grew up here on the same streets as these kids,” Anthony Johnson, one of Starbuck’s youth advisors, told Ryan. “I can see a lot of boys growing up in the same things (he dealt with) – drugs, gangs.”

A key part of VFZ is trying to reach troubled students in middle school before their problems erupt into violence with another kid or a teacher or later in high school. “We’re trying to head it off,” Johnson told Ryan.

Colvin said police calls to her school were down to 48 this year compared to 148 calls last year.

Ryan had a question. “The old guidance counselor role from the old days just doesn’t fit the bill?” No – traditional guidance counselors and school social workers are not credible to many kids in need of help, explained Robert L. Woodson Sr., founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., that is helping to operate the VFZ program in Racine.

“Most kids need a reason to be peaceable,” Woodson added. That youth advisor often can defuse an incident that the old-school guidance counselors and social workers cannot. “That youth advisor is one of them,” Woodson explained. “They just need somebody that can reach these kids. These (youth) advisors bring empathy to it that no one else can. It’s all about credibility.”

Maurice Horton, who helps run the VFZ program in Racine schools, is a former convicted felon who was pardoned by Gov. Jim Doyle in 2007 because of his gang diversion efforts. Horton’s background helps tremendously with a troubled student who tries to dismiss him with a what-do-you-know, you’ve-never-been-there attitude, he said.

Disruptive students are sent to a VFZ room in the school where they can talk to youth advisors, or two students on the verge of a fight can talk out their differences. There, they also can get help setting goals and with homework.

Soren Gajewski, principal of the second school Ryan toured, Mitchell Fine Arts Middle School, told the congressman the VFZ program was introduced at Mitchell last fall and is helping to reduce violence. The youth advisors patrol the school’s halls and monitor the lunchroom and have been able to defuse conflicts before they bubble over into fights, Gajweski said.

Racine Police Chief Art Howell, who joined Ryan as he toured Mitchell, said the early results of the VFZ program at the three Racine middle schools are “promising.” He added: “What this does is take the teachers away from playing referee all day and get them back to teaching. The disruptive student is out of the classroom.” McKinley Middle School is the third school using the program; it launched VFZ last fall.

The VFZ program now operates in more than 30 schools across the country – including Milwaukee Public Schools – and is helping to improve safety and test scores and to reduce suspensions and absenteeism, said Woodson.

Interviewed at the end of his tour of Starbuck, Ryan said one attraction for him in the VFZ initiative is that local schools keep control of how the program is run. “I’m a big supporter of Violence-Free Zones,” he said. “It just plain works.”

Dave Daley, a journalist for 30 years, covered the Capitol for The Milwaukee Journal and legal affairs for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.