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When the Fear Returns

John Last 1The first time I saw a stabbing victim was my second day in prison. I heard screams coming from the hallway, and then an officer came into view, dragging a prisoner by his shirt. The victim was moaning in pain and the officer was asking him who “stuck” him. I stood holding the bars, watching the scene with a kind of detachment that made it surreal. I was terribly frightened.

Over the next 24 years I had a lot of other scary experiences; too many to count. In a way I became used to them, or at least learned to repress the fear. I haven’t experienced much fear since I got out of prison in 2009, not beyond the usual fears of daily life. That changed a few weeks ago though, and it was all because of the teenagers.

I have been doing some teaching work at a high school near where I live in north Georgia. The initial idea was to share communication skills and strategies for resolving conflict more effectively. The kids had issues with various aspects of the school system: attendance, performance, altercations with other students and teachers. The school brought my colleague and me in to help the kids have a better chance of success in school, and perhaps even in life.

I had a lot of ideas about what to teach. I know what works, what connects to people’s basic needs and desires. Not only does it work, it is empowering. Knowing these skills is a way to get what we want, and who isn’t interested in that?  These are skills that everybody wants, or at least I thought they were. Now I am not so sure.

I was in the middle of an extremely interesting (to me at least) exercise about how we respond to conflict. There are basically five different styles, and it pays to know which ones we, and others, are using. This concept can be represented spatially, using two axes. One represents self-interest, and the other represents investment in relationship. As I was sharing this with the kids, they showed their interest in different ways. Some began conversations with their peers, some began to look at their phones, and some lay their heads on the desks and closed their eyes. Things were not going as well as I had hoped.

I began to feel afraid. Here I was trying to do the work I feel called to do, wanting to share something that might help these kids to achieve something in life besides unemployment, poverty, and maybe even prison or death, and I was failing miserably. My partner noticed that we had forgotten a handout we wanted to share, so I quickly volunteered to go get them, seizing the opportunity to escape from my increasing fear.

Going to the office and back was about a 10-minute walk, and as I came back down the hill I took the opportunity to calm down and connect with my own intentions. I noticed the tension I was carrying in my body, born of my fear, and I reflected on all of times I had been in really dangerous situations. I have had people threaten to kill me, and knew that they meant it. I reminded myself that I wasn’t in that kind of danger.

Instead it was fear of not connecting with these kids, of what could happen to them without the skills we were offering. It was a fear of not being able to connect with them in a way that would lead them to listen to me. They were good at blocking out adult voices, they do it all day long, and I didn’t want them to do that with me.

By the time I was back at the classroom door I was calm and even energized. I entered, not knowing what would happen, but willing to see. If what we tried worked, then we would keep doing it. If it didn’t, we would stop. The main thing was that we wouldn’t give up on them.

I think this attitude is vital to dealing with young people. If I want to do this work then I have to be ready to adapt my delivery, to try new things, and to engage them where they are in the moment. Too often adults give up on kids who are “difficult.” It is easy to write them off as unable or unwilling to learn and grow, but this just isn’t true. Usually we don’t move forward because we, the adults, don’t know exactly what to do. This isn’t a good enough reason to stop though, and I can’t fool myself into thinking that it is.

As a colleague once told me, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” If I have to do things poorly before I can do them well, then I will. There’s nothing to be afraid of.

Me My Sister and the Bully

At age 12 we moved from a small town in Kansas to a suburb of Albany, .N.Y. Over the summer, I befriended another boy named Dean. On the first day of school, while at the bus stop in front of my house, a group of boys approached. When Dean saw them, he became visibly upset.

"What's wrong," I asked.

"That's Jeff and his gang." he said. "They're trouble."

It was not their bus stop. "This could not be good," I thought.

When they arrived, Jeff said something I couldn't make out, but I knew from his tone and body language that he wanted to pick a fight with Dean.

Having been raised to be chivalrous -- or some would say "stupid" -- I stepped between Dean and the gang and said something foolish that went something like "You will have to go through me."

They just looked at each other and laughed. I thought their laughter to be incredulous but at the same time praying my mother would look out the window and rescue me.

She didn't and I was contemplating, "Do I run toward the house or stay and get pummeled to death?"

Just before I turned to look at Dean, I was thinking, "At least I have my friend Dean."

But there was no Dean. He opted to do what I was just thinking, he ran!

I turned back around facing Jeff. He says to me, "What are you going to do now?"

Just as I was about to run, I heard a loud motherly voice. In that split second, I thought of my Mom -- but it wasn't her -- it was Dean's mom. He ran to get help.

"You leave now before I call the police," she hollered.

Jeff and his gang of thugs left, but they didn't forget.

A week later, I was standing in the back of a crowded bus. I felt a tap on my shoulder, I looked around and there Jeff stood with a hateful stare.

He slapped me across the face. I stood there and didn't move. His friends were standing around waiting for me to do something. I didn't. I was too scared.

They soon discovered I had a sister. She rode the same bus. It wasn’t long before they attacked her.  That’s when my personality changed forever. I became a fighter.

I got into a lot of fights that year protecting my sister. The gang of bullies made sure to attack when adults were not around.

I took a beating physically and emotionally until it dawned on me that I could start my own gang. If Jeff can bully in numbers, I can defend in numbers.

My friends Mike, Louie, and John soon had my back. It didn't take long for Jeff to figure out that I wasn't worth his trouble. You see -- my friends were bigger and smarter.

I fought off my bullies because I was resourceful. Most victims are not resourceful. The research shows that many teachers are not aware of the frequency of bullying in the school. Much of it has to do with the bully's covert approach to harming others coupled with the victim’s failure to report the incidents of bullying.

Studies show that most don't tell on their attackers for a number of reasons. In a survey of post-secondary students, most students believed that teachers are not helpful and may make the problem worse by drawing more attention to the bully without taking effective steps to prevent further abuse. The bully is now aggravated and the attacks occur more frequently and with greater intensity.

Other reasons given include fearing retaliation, feeling shame at not being able to stand up for themselves, fearing they would not be believed, not wanting to worry their parents, having no confidence that anything would change as a result, thinking their parents' or a teacher's advice would make the problem worse, fearing their teacher would tell the bully who told on him or her and thinking it was worse to be thought of as a snitch.

What should we expect from kids who are under neurological construction? Their frontal lobe -- the part of the brain that translates emotion into logic -- is not developed until age 25.

For my sister and I, we didnt want our parents to worry. It’s an interesting paradox the love between a parent and child. My parents were nurturers. They were protective -- not overly so -- but always hugging, asking questions, and in our business.

Here is the rub -- knowing the extent of their love also meant knowing the anguish and pain they would experience if they knew our pain. They always told us we could talk to them and share problems, but we didn't always do that. Not because we didn't trust them, but because we loved them, in our cognitively short-sighted way.

In hindsight, my adolescent male ego was bigger than my immature frontal lobe. I didn’t want the bullies and others to witness my Mom in action to save me and my sister. I trusted my Mom to fix things but I didn’t want the embarrassment of being labeled a "momma's boy."

Ironically, my selfless chivalry was in part driven by my selfish need to avoid humiliation. Sadly, this irony placed my sister in harm’s way. I am sure she wasn’t concerned about mommy coming to the rescue.  My emotions were not getting filtered through an objective lens to reach logical decisions. That's the nature of adolescence.

As I cull through the evidence-based approaches to combat bullying and look back on those dark days, I am convinced that the best approach is not zero tolerance, it's teaching the teachers to identify bullies coupled with programs designed specifically to assess and respond to their need to bully.

Otherwise, kids will continue to be traumatized. They will find their own way to deal with it.  Some are resourceful -- most aren't.

The effects can be long lasting.  Others simply try to take their own life -- and some succeed.

Beyond Scared Straight Program “Incoherent” According to Conflict Management Expert

scared_straight_seriesSet to air Thursday at 8 p.m., the premier episode of the new season of the controversial reality show, “Beyond Scared Straight,” adheres to the themes that made it A&E’s most watched show: A small group of at-risk youth spend the day in prison where they are yelled at, intimidated and humiliated by sheriff’s deputies and inmates alike. The screaming and threats of prison rape are followed by emotional conversations with the inmates as they describe to the teens where they went wrong and how the teens can avoid the same fate.

The episode features Mecklenburg County, N.C.’s “Reality Program,” created by Sheriff Daniel “Chipp” Bailey.

“Our Reality Program stresses education, not intimidation,” Bailey is quoted as saying on the program’s website.

According to the website, the mission of the program is to “provide the community with a program which will help educate young people about the long-term effects of participating in criminal activity.”

After watching the show, non-violent communication and conflict management expert Dr. Heather Pincock was baffled.

“There is no coherent approach in the diversion program,” Pincock said. “Most of the episode they [the deputies] were there to intimidate the youth or break the youth down or humiliate them. Then they suddenly start saying. ‘We’re your friends, we’re here to help you.’ There are very mixed messages around their role. It doesn’t make any sense.”

The scenes with inmates were also troubling to Pincock. “The way the inmates are represented, it’s complete chaos, and it is kind of glorifying or sensationalizing this idea that the people that are incarcerated there are completely out of control or inhuman.” But later, she said, the same inmates were shown having intimate conversations with the teens. “It seems highly incoherent as an intervention or a way to communicate a message to at-risk youth. It didn’t strike me as well thought out.”

Teens applying for the program must come from local schools, according to the application for the program. JJIE also obtained a release form parents must sign when enrolling their children in the “Reality Program.” The form absolves the Sheriff’s Office from any liability should their child be injured while participating in the program.

The form also states that it is a “program of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, in cooperation with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools” and others.  When asked about the school district’s involvement with the program, a school district spokesperson said they do not endorse the “Reality Program.”

Despite having no involvement with the program, spokesperson Lauren Bell said that school resource officers, some of whom are employed by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, are permitted to provide information about the program to students. Resource officers do not provide information about other diversion programs, Bell said.

“The resource officers do not endorse or discourage the program,” she said.

As JJIE reported previously, “Beyond Scared Straight” has been drawing criticism from juvenile justice experts who say the program is ineffective and a waste of money. They cite studies that show scared straight programs are actually counter-productive.

But the show's producer, Arnold Shapiro, claims those studies are wrong and too old to be relevant. He says today’s scared straight programs work better because of the added counseling portion.