January 13, 2009 by JSOline — When Robert Roberson graduated from Bay View High School in the 1990s, he remembers most of his peers feared punishment. But when Roberson, now 30, returned to Bay View last year for a job as a youth adviser – a position created in some Milwaukee public high schools as part of a new, national school violence reduction model – one of Bay View’s burliest troublemakers punched him. Despite the tough work environment for Roberson and other new youth advisers, their role in what’s known as the Violence-Free School Zone initiative appears to be having a positive impact, according to a new study by researchers at Baylor University.

The research indicates that schools with the Violence-Free School Zone initiative have reduced the number of reported violent and nonviolent incidents in school, as well as the number of student suspensions, when compared with other high schools that don’t have the program. Dovetailing on the release of the study Tuesday was an announcement by MPS Superintendent William Andrekopoulos that student suspensions throughout the district are down more than a quarter in the first half of the 2008-’09 school year, when compared with the same time period a year earlier. According to district data, MPS has issued 9,000 fewer suspensions this year, with particular improvement in seventh, eighth and ninth grades.

Something to celebrate

“This is a day of celebration,” Andrekopoulos said, noting that reports of suspensions in those grades had each decreased by more than 30% so far this year. Though enrollment in Milwaukee’s traditional K-12 public schools declined from more than 81,000 students in 2007 to about 79,000 students in 2008, the number of traditional high school students has decreased by only about 900 kids. Rather than a decrease in students to potentially suspend, district officials believe the behavioral improvements are a result of new programs that are getting at the root problem of school disruptions.

Police officers in high schools such as Bradley Tech have helped, as has the implementation of classroom discipline plans and peer mediation programs. Representatives from community agencies have also been welcomed into schools, Andrekopoulos said. That’s the concept behind the Violence-Free School Zone initiative, which started at South Division High School in 2005. Now, eight high schools in MPS have the program, which relies on a team of youth advisers in each school – selected and trained by community agencies – who act as hall monitors, mentors and counselors.

As with Roberson at Bay View, the youth advisers often have graduated from the high school they work in or live in the community, and they freely hand out their cell phone numbers to students. Their goal: befriend the bullies, build relationships, garner tips about brewing conflicts and defuse situations before they snowball.

Getting it started

The Violence-Free School Zone initiative is the brainchild of Bob Woodson, the founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington, D.C., and a recipient of funding from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation for the past two decades. Woodson describes the youth advisers as “indigenous leaders” who, with training and funding, are dramatically reducing violence among predatory kids.

In Milwaukee, the Latino Community Center and the Running Rebels Community Organization have helped support the program, which costs about $350,000 per school. MPS has put in $1.5 million for the Violence-Free School Zone initiative, and Woodson’s group has raised about $900,000 in private funds. A federal Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant has funded the initiative at the James Madison Academic Campus. However, plans to expand to more MPS schools are on hold while organizers look for funding. As for Roberson, he’s helped the student who punched him improve his GPA from a 0.0 to a 2.7. Now, Roberson said, that student is helping him make referrals.

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