BUILDING A PEACEFUL FUTURE
At ACCESS Youth, the power of conversation is brought to light.
Executive director Jodi Ovca remembers a teenager who hit a man over the head. No reason. He just... bonked the guy. During a mediation facilitated by ACCESS Youth, the man learned the teen’s father had been deported, and that the boy didn’t know how to channel his anger. The man, who was a painter, offered to help the boy learn to paint.
Of course, not all the stories end this neatly, but ACCESS Youth’s pro-meditation approach to intervention is part of a growing effort to end the school-to-prison pipeline.
Since its founding in 2009, the program has focused on three intervention points: Truancy, alternatives to suspension, and alternatives to prosecution.
More than 1500 juveniles were arrested in the District of Columbia between January and June of 2014, according to the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, often for low-level misdemeanors. More than 10,000 students are suspended each year. Out of school suspension, said programs director Caitlin Ellsworth, is often a first, rather than a last, resort
“That’s not okay,” Ovca said. “There’s no reason for these kids to be seeing the inside of a jail cell.”
“There has to be a better way,” she continued. “I didn’t see any rehabiltiaon, any addressing the issues that got them in trouble. Instead it was ‘hey let’s lock them up until they’re 21, and then expect them to live a normal life.’”
ACCESS Youth uses mediation to help at-risk youth form solutions to the behavior that might be leading them down the path toward to the criminal justice system.
“One of the remarkable things about mediation,” said Jessica Quaranto, an ACCESS Youth mediator and board member, “when facilitated properly, is that just having the chance to be heard relieves a huge burden from both the victim(s) and offender(s).”
“It’s about them talking about what happened, coming up with ideas and solutions of how to fix it, what are future choices you can make?” Jodi said. “How are you going to make a different choice? You have to walk them through that. They have to come up with that. If they don’t come up with it, it doesn’t stick.”
The ACCESS Youth programs are in a state of evolution. In the next year, the ACCESS staff is hoping to extend the programs in existing schools and expand the reach within Wards 7 and 8.
ACCESS Youth has implemented District of Columbia Public School-sanctioned programs at and Ballou high schools, with a Memorandum of Understanding through 2017, and has formed a partnership with the ACE diversion program.
Last year, Ellsworth said, they were referred a memorable case from the ACE (alternative to court experience) program: A 12-year-old boy arrested for shoplifting candy – about $40 worth. ACCESS facilitated a victim-offender mediation between the boy, his mother, and the store manager.
The manager talked about how he woke up at 3 a.m. to start his day early enough to go to the session. He reminded the boy that his mother had had a long day as well, and that people were there because they want to see him make good choices. The child didn't have male role models in his life, and the store manager told the boy that if he were ever interested, he would make sure he got a job at the store.
"We had very little we needed to say because the victim was so passionate about making the boy understand the track he was putting himself on,” Caitlin said. "We can get everyone to the table, but sometimes they can forget we're there."
ACCESS YOUTH: MEDIATION STORIES
Several kids were throwing rocks at a car. Inside was a man, a single father who worked two jobs, and his 6-year-old daughter. The police came, and all but one kid ran away.
ACCESS Youth contacted the man, and asked him to come in for a mediation, explaining that it can be effective for the offender to meet with the victim. The boy was there with his mother, also a single parent. The father of the little girl was understandably angry.
“Why were you throwing rocks?” he asked the boy. “Why at my car?”
“The other kids were doing it,” the boy replied.
“Do you know where I live?” the man asked. They were neighbors, living just around the corner. Now, said the man, his daughter had something else, someone else, to be afraid of.
“I would never hurt her,” the boy said.
And the man asked the boy two unexpected questions: Have you seen “Antwone Fisher”? Do you like popcorn? A complete shift happened. The father came in angry, and he ended up talking to the kid, and offering to let him help out with chores around the house, and to watch a movie about a troubled young man. He could tell the boy didn’t have a strong male presence in his life.
“I didn’t want to come,” the man said. “I thought it was a waste of time, but now instead of me avoiding that block, now we’re neighbors.” ACCESS Youth gave them that chance.
- this story is based on an interview with Jodi Ovca, founder and executive director of ACCESS Youth.
At one point, we were receiving a number of mediations involving young women getting into fights at a particular high school. On one such occasion, three young ladies and their respective parents met at the police station to discuss what had happened.
They had all been arrested for their involvement in a large school fight. There probably were a dozen teens involved in the main fight, but these girls were the ones arrested. They were not particularly interested in mediation and their parents were pretty frustrated at having to attend. It came to light that the school had already done a cursory mediation, which had frustrated the girls further, because none of them understood exactly why they specifically had gotten in so much trouble.
The message I got from them was essentially "Everyone is angry with us, but we weren't the only ones...and no one is listening to us."
None of them felt that they were really responsible for the fight, but they all got into trouble. Therefore part of the mediation centered on them beginning to understand that even if they did not start the fight, they probably played a role.
Inevitably most kids come to this sense of responsibility slowly on their own, as long as they have had a chance to really tell their side AND really hear the other side (as well as how their involvement in fights impacts their parents, the police and the school).
At one point during this mediation, I asked the parents to tell what was going well with the girls despite their involvement in the fight. This helped them to hear their strengths and know that their parents noticed these strengths even when they were getting into trouble. It also helped me to better facilitate an agreement that was realistic and supported them in cultivating these strengths.
ltimately, with all mediations, we want to know how the participants are going to move forward and avoid or diffuse this kind of problem in the future. The girls came up with lots of creative solutions to this effect, mostly involving getting away when they begin to recognize the signs of a fight, and not further instigating it.
- this story was sent via email to The Daily Do Good by ACCESS Youth board member Jessica Quaranto. It has been edited for length.
ACCESS YOUTH: TESTIMONIALS
As a community member and parent, I feel a deep responsibility to all young people and to my community as a whole. Mediation intervention and related ongoing support not only has the power to transform the direction of the lives of the individual young people it touches directly, but also broader social norms, school climate and community engagement. I have also learned a great deal about myself in conducting mediations and supporting ACCESS over the years. These experiences and my work with Jodi and her colleagues, have motivated me to go back for my Masters in counseling psychology and have no doubt made me a better parent and person.
- Jessica Quaranto, board member
As you walk the halls, one can get a feel for the energy of the students that day — which can tell you what to expect. My students appreciate that my door is always open to them and they do take advantage of this. In-between my scheduled meetings with students on my list, I can definitely expect several other unexpected mediations or conferences with students. From morning until dismissal there is a constant flow of student traffic, without fail. The good thing about this traffic is, it shows that the mission of ACCESS Youth is working, and students are buying in to our programming. Students who come to my office and express what is going on with them on any given day is a positive thing, because pre-emption is the key to our programming — especially the Alternative to Suspension program.
- Morris Wright, ACCESS School Programs Manager at H.D. Woodson High School
While there is some measure of commitment from DCPS to reduce suspension and reduce zero tolerace policies that result in deeply punitive measures, that's not always embraced by staff members who are trying to survive on a daily basis. These are kids who are seeing a lot and the staff are as well.
A lot of people are in a position where they need to react in the moment, but it can be a detriment to the youth to treat them like criminals from the get-go. They stand out in the cold and line up to go through metal detectors. The dynamic that the adults create is reflected by the way kids behave as well.
It's a process in order to educate people about other ways of doing things. They don't want to be a part of those statistics that are starting to dim the prospects for our kids who are already at risks.
- Caitlin Ellsworth, program manager
You’re not trying to say “oh, look, X’s feelings are hurt.” X can say what is happening. When a kid hears the impact directly from the person who is hurt, you don’t have to do anything.
When they hear the impact from the person who is harmed, there’s a shift, that’s the powerful piece about mediation. There’s not going to be a magical “ahhh…” but it allows them to dig down to the motivation of “how did we get to this point.” It gives them something to work toward. Sometimes, they’ll say what they think you want to hear, but our job is to dig down. They say, “I want to be respectful,” we say, “what does that mean? What does treating someone with respect look like?”
It goes back to “how do you want to be treated, what does being respected look like to you. You’re walking them through the experience instead of saying ‘that’s mean, don’t do that.”
- Jodi Ovca, executive director