For more than 30 years, the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy has provided legal services to low-income youth in Evanston charged with felonies or misdemeanors. It also advocates on behalf of school-aged children involved in disciplinary proceedings at School Districts 65 or 202, and on behalf of children (including pre-K) with a disability who need assistance in developing an individual education program.

What makes the Moran Center different from many other legal aid organizations is its focus on youth. Another important difference is “We integrate social work service with our legal service,” said Kathy Lyons, executive director.

“We provide kids who we are representing in court with social work support and that can be therapy, but also include case management and crisis management,” she said.

In the last few years, the Center has been expanding its services to help youth before they run into trouble with the juvenile justice system.

“It’s very frustrating to represent kids in juvenile court because at that point kids are already arrested and are already court-involved,” said Ms. Lyons. “Generally things are not going very well and it’s hard to kind of get kids back on the right track.

“If you start sooner and teach children who are younger communication skills and conflict resolution skills, they can avoid behavior that might lead them into the juvenile justice system.”

VIP at ETHS

In 2010, the Moran Center implemented a pilot program at Evanston Township High School that provides students who would otherwise be suspended with an alternative to suspension. The goal of the program, now called “Voices, Ideas and Perspectives” (VIP), is to teach students through group work and peer collaboration better ways to communicate and to respond to conflict.

In the program, a Moran Center social worker facilitates group sessions for about five or six different groups of students during the school year. Hour-long sessions are held twice a week for four weeks at the school. Generally, five or six students participate in each group.

The infractions at ETHS may range from disrespectful behavior to mouthing off to a teacher or a security guard, bullying or fist-a-cuffs, said Ms. Lyons. A dean at ETHS will impose a suspension for a certain number of days and tell a student that participation in the VIP program will reduce the number of days of their suspension.

“We will try to teach them ways to handle emotions and to communicate,” said Ms. Lyons. “We will try to give them some insight or have them come to some insight about why they did what they did to get them into trouble. … An important part is the peer interactions.

“The kids actually – and this is another reason we think it’s very effective – the kids end up learning from each other and providing solutions that we as adults might not have even considered,” said Ms. Lyons. “They’re learning these skills, and then they’re trying them in the classroom with each other, and then they’re coming up with suggestions that are relevant to their lives, on their terms.

“What we have found is that the best results come from the collaboration among the group of kids who have all experienced something negative. … When we see the light bulbs go on, they are saying to each other ‘you could handle it this way, or this is another way you could have handled it, or you don’t have to fight to show that you’re strong. Walking away could be strong too.’ When they are saying that to each other, it’s a much more impactful message than when we as adults are lecturing down to them.”

Ms. Lyons said the time is spread out over four weeks because there is “a lot of learning” and also “because we teach skills in a way that builds from the first session all the way to the eighth. We want to give kids a chance to practice to see what happens when they use their skills throughout the weeks that the program runs.”

The Pilot at District 65

Ms. Lyons said, “Our work there [at ETHS] led us to believe that if we could teach the skills earlier it would make a difference.” She said they approached Joyce Bartz, director of special services at District 65, and asked about the possibility of expanding the VIP program to the middle schools.

The VIP program was tailored for middle-school students and piloted at Haven Middle School in the 2013-14 school year. Unlike the ETHS program, the students who participated in the program at Haven were not suspended. Rather, they were identified by the principal or assistant principals as students who might benefit from participating; and participation in the program was entirely voluntary.

In the spring semester, the program at Haven met for two periods each day, two days a week for four weeks. About 10 to 12 students participated in the program. The two periods were a pre-lunch period and a lunch period, so participants did not miss any instructional time in a core subject, said Mikki Guerra, social work program coordinator.

“We have modules where we talk about relationships, assertive communications, feelings and emotions, triggers and accountability,” said Ms. Guerra, “but it is individualized to the group.”

As an example, she said if the module is communication, students in the group will start talking about how they talk with their parents or with teachers. “As a facilitator, I might jump in and say, ‘Instead of saying it that way, what if you say it this way?’” One student might say, “that wouldn’t work and they’d start making their own alternatives.”

One thing she teaches is “Say it with honey” on the premise that people react more favorably if things are phrased in a more positive way.

“As an example we will start with a phrase, ‘Get out of my face.’ … We ask ‘What are you trying to get out of that phrase? What can you do to change it and make it with more honey?’ One kid came back with, ‘Back up, you’re in my bubble.’ … They’re able to change some of their negative language.”

“We also do a lot of peer collaboration,” she said. “All of my studies say, ‘You get more turn-around from a peer-to-peer interaction.’ I am a facilitator. I do a little bit of the talking, and I also stir the pot on purpose. I need the kids to show me what I’m working with as well as holding each other accountable.”

As an example, Ms. Guerra said during one group discussion a girl said she walked up to another girl and called her out to fight. During the discussion one peer asked, “Why did you start that with her. What was the point of that?”

Another example, one girl said, “If we walk away we’re scared.” A peer said, “What if you just decided to do the right thing?” Ms. Guerra said, “It went silent in the room.

“When a student is encouraged by a peer, or when a peer suggests something for them to do,” said Ms. Guerra, “they are much more likely to not only retain that information but also to attempt it, because it’s not an adult trying to put rules or restrictions on them. It’s a way for them to look at it as more of a positive interaction instead of a forced interaction.”

Ms. Guerra said also they take cutting-edge models such as “mindfulness” and “visualization” and incorporating them into the sessions. These are methods that help students to step back, focus on the here-and-now, and respond to stress in a more positive way. It helps students to take a moment and think before acting, she said.

Measuring Success/Expansion at D65

At ETHS, Ms. Lyons said, one measure of success is the number of days of suspension avoided due to participation in the VIP program. Last year, they reduced the number of days suspended by 83.5 days.

In addition, Ms. Lyons said, ETHS tracks the recidivism rate, or whether students who participate in the program are suspended in the future. Last year, more than 50% of the students who participated in VIP at the high school did not have another suspension, she said. About 17% had one or two more suspensions, and the rest had three or more.

Dean Taya Kinzie, a dean at ETHS and the liaison for the VIP Program, told the RoundTable the VIP program has provided students with an alternative to being suspended and kept them engaged in their education. The program has also helped students to build skills to change behavior that may lead to negative outcomes, she said. They help students focus on “How can I ensure that I as a student am engaged in the process of making different choices for the future and really having different personal control of my future,” said Ms. Kinzie.

She said the “overwhelming majority” of kids who participate in the program have either no more suspensions or a decrease in what might be expected in light of their trajectory before participating.

Haven’s principal Kathy Roberson emphasized the program at Haven differed from the one at ETHS because the kids who participated at Haven were not suspended. She told the RoundTable the goal of the program was to help students see they have options and help them “slow down long enough to make a better decision.”

She said the “evidence for us that it was successful is the kids continued to come,” even though participation in the program was voluntary. “They were talking, they were active members in the group,” she said.

Ms. Roberson added that she would be talking this month with representatives of the Moran Center on how best to continue the program at the school.

Joyce Bartz, director of special services at District 65, told the RoundTable that District 65 is planning to expand the program next year. “We feel the program was successful,” she said. “While noting that it’s hard to measure success, “We certainly know anecdotally that students very much enjoyed the group work, and we have very few children who did not continue with the program.”

She said next year a goal is to improve students’ decision-making, noting that sometimes middle-schoolers can be impulsive. “That really is what we’re trying to do is improve decision making,” Ms. Bartz said.

Ms. Lyons said the Moran Center is poised to expand next year because it received funding from the Women’s Club of Evanston’s benefit show, which designated the Moran Center’s VIP program as a beneficiary.

At a Board Policy Committee meeting on May 14, several District 65 Board members expressed interest in adding the VIP program as another alternative to suspension at District 65.

District 65 has had an alternative to suspension program that requires the parents of a student who has been suspended to participate in joint counseling sessions with their child. It is thus family-centered. At times, though, parents whose children are suspended refuse to participate in the joint counseling sessions and that alternative to suspension is then not available.

Several Board members thought the VIP program, which does not include parent participation, might be an option for those students.