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‘Help people heal’: New youth violence prevention pilot takes shape for Raub Middle School

Morning Call - 6/24/2023

When kids are hurting, they act out — sometimes violently. That’s the premise of a new anti-violence project at Raub Middle School aimed at decreasing disciplinary infractions and increasing attendance.

“So much of it is rooted in exposure to trauma,” said Beth Tomlinson, senior director of community resilience at United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley, noting violence is often cyclical.

“If we don’t intervene, and help people heal, and give them the emotional skills, the conflict resolution skills, the coping skills to know what they’re feeling and communicate better and differently, nothing is going to change,” she added.

And that’s where the Youth Violence Prevention Project comes in.

United Way is funding the two-year, $1.2 million pilot program at Raub with a grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to intervene and prevent group and gun violence. Four community partner organizations have been enlisted to provide services for the project — Valley Youth House, Shanthi Project, Justice Collaborative and Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley.

Allentown School Board approved the partnerships at Thursday’s board meeting in a 6-3 vote.

Some board members expressed concerns about the diversity of the partner organizations and staff involved in the project, prompting an amendment to allow the district final approval of staff hired for the project and influence on programming.

“Once again, it’s equity,” said Director Phoebe Harris, who voted against the partnerships. “Once again we’re basing this on not having representation for our Hispanic community.”

Directors Lisa Conover and Jennifer Lynn Ortiz also voted against the motion.

Still, United Way has promised to focus on staff cultural competency throughout the pilot, which begins in July and ends in the summer of 2025. The board will receive regular updates on the project from United Way.

The decision to launch the pilot at Raub came about from discussions between United Way staff and Raub Principal Jose Delgado, who has led the school for four years.

Behavioral challenges are nothing new at the middle school, where 961 students learn, according to the district’s most recent enrollment data. But Delgado said the emotional toll the pandemic has taken on students has exacerbated these struggles.

“We have seen a little bit more of a bump in the violence, or the level of violence in the altercations or the assaults or the disrespect to staff, or just overall mental health of students and emotional health of students,” he said.

During the 2022-23 school year, there were 8,652 disciplinary infractions at Raub, including 522 instances of misconduct, 97 fights, 23 assaults and 15 instances where a student brought a weapon to school.

There were 496 out-of-school suspensions, and 41% of students missed 18 or more days of school, making them chronically absent.

Tomlinson said the goal of the project is to “to teach students how to solve those conflicts, start building better relationships [and] build a positive culture, so that students feel safe,” which in turn will make them more likely to attend school regularly.

“If you don’t think anybody cares about you, or will notice if you’re not there, are you going to come? No,” she said, adding students won’t come to school if they fear for their physical safety either.

To address these concerns, the pilot will utilize the Cure Violence model, which takes a public health approach to violence prevention by mediating conflict between community members or gangs, building positive relationships, and focusing on those most at risk for being victims or perpetrators of violence.

“It’s been acknowledged at the federal level as an effective strategy for violence prevention and reduction,” Tomlinson said of the evidence-based model.

The four project partners bring different skills and strategies to execute this model and address violence at Raub.

The Justice Collaborative will lead efforts to monitor and assess the program through both quantitative and qualitative data, such as attendance records and student interviews. It will receive $60,000 for these efforts.

The Shanthi Project will train teachers in mindfulness practices to reduce staff burnout, which is common in urban districts. And in the pilot’s second year, teachers will incorporate these practices into the classroom, with the goal of creating positive relationships with students. The Shanti Project will receive $25,000 from the grant.

Valley Youth House will receive $360,000 to provide two additional behavioral health counselors to address mental health needs of students.

Promise Neighborhoods, which will receive $444,534 in grant money, will provide four mentors to build relationships with students during the day and to host nonviolence workshops.

“Having mentors and having people that are specifically designated to provide those supports will be super beneficial, especially at the middle school level, where I think developmentally, they are really trying to figure out where they fit in,” said Tiffany Polek, ASD’s director of student services.

Promise Neighborhoods will also develop a youth safety task force; connect Raub families to needed services; and maintain safe corridors for student walkers.

To keep routes safe, the organization will have staff members monitor students on their way home after dismissal to ensure there’s no bullying or fighting.

“The goal is to engage with the youth, so they’ll throw footballs back and forth, they’re talking to the kids, they’re walking with the kids,” said Hasshan Batts, executive director of Promise Neighborhoods. “The kids look forward to it.”

The organization already had staff in the areas between Raub and Allen High School last year as part of its own corridor pilot. This program will continue next year as well, separate from the grant-funded efforts.

Promise Neighborhoods also will engage business owners, faith organizations and community members to keep an eye on students and serve as a safe space if necessary.

“If they find themselves in a dangerous situation there’s always somebody who cares,” Batts said.

Batts and his team also are tasked with addressing gang recruitment and activity.

The area around Raub has been a hotbed for gang activity for years, community advocates said, estimating about 20 active gangs in Allentown, including five with national origins.

Pas Simpson, founder and executive director of the student-focused nonprofit One Big Smile, is skeptical of the Youth Violence Prevention Project’s efforts to decrease gang activity and fears the program will focus too much on data collection.

Simpson, whose work in part focuses on ending gang violence, said concentrated efforts at Raub will only push gangs to other schools. He said communication with gang members is essential to make change.

“My main questions is, ‘How connected are they to the gangs?’” Simpson said. “Because if you’re not connected to the gangs, then you’re going in and trying to do gang work and declaring war on the gangs, how is that going to help?”

But Batts said Promise Neighborhoods already works with “credible messengers” to communicate with gangs in order to deter recruitment in specific areas, to stop retaliation and to help kids safely exit gangs.

“Our focus is on, how do we create safety and belonging for youth?” Batts said. “And it’s long before they turn to gangs.”

Morning Call reporter Jenny Roberts can be reached at 484-903-1732 and jroberts@mcall.com.

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