Nine students sit in portable two on Wednesday morning, Oct. 31. It’s Halloween, but they don’t express excitement for trick-or-treating, except for maybe scaring younger kids.
The kids begin sharing about their weekend: PS4, bike rides, flamin’ hot Cheetos and Takis. Then the instructor Nikki Burr redirects.
“So what did we learn last week?” Burr said.
Only one boy speaks up: avoiding trouble with others. She asks if he stayed out of trouble.
“There was no trouble this week,” he said.
For the fifth and sixth grade boys in this room at Panther Lake Elementary School, Renton Juvenile Unit is teaching them nine weeks of social skills, anger control and moral reasoning. The curriculum is a condensed version of the juvenile court probation services Aggression Replacement Training program that case managers like Burr offer to teenagers.
“We’re just trying to reach a younger age so that they can have the skills they need to be successful and not wait until they’re 17 and in our system,” Burr said. “Other than our normal kids that are court ordered, this is the first time we’ve ever done it with an elementary school.”
Bringing the class to Panther Lake was this year’s Equity and Social Justice unit project for the Renton probation unit, thought up by supervisor JoeAnne Taylor. This pilot program, if a success, could potentially expand to other elementary schools.
Communications manager for King County Superior Court Jamie Holter said the program “provides tools to help students manage their emotions, social skills and challenges in a calm, reasoned, thoughtful way.”
The lesson on Halloween, the third week, was anger management skills. When Burr asked how many of them get angry, seven of the nine raised their hands. They talked about the body’s reactions to anger and words to describe the emotional build-up, including rumbling and frustrated. The boys then role played real scenarios that made them angry, and steps they could have taken to calm down.
The Panther Lake counselor Michelle Boyd enjoyed the lesson’s focus on anger.
“At this age, as soon as they get angry they don’t think through all the consequences — they react. And I saw a lot of participation in this group because they can all relate to being angry,” Boyd said.
Holter said anger management is an important part in the long run for preventing crimes like domestic violence and assault.
During the scenarios, one boy described a student provoking him in class the other day. He said the other student was trying to get him in trouble. He walked out and into another classroom. Instructor Mai Tran asked him what the anger felt like, and he described his vocal chords and throat getting tense. Tran then asked why he left the room.
“I can’t break the promise I made to my mom,” he said, looking down.
Many of the kids in this room remind Burr of the teens in her caseload who come from tough homes or the foster system, she said.
Students selected for this class were assessed for risk by their teachers and placed on a three-tier system. Mostly second tier students were focused on for this class — students Boyd and Burr both said can show signs of leadership and trouble.
“We do think it will be good, because this group right now could kind of go either way. They could be a leader or they could get into trouble, so we’re trying to divert them,” Burr said.
The room is also majority boys of color, with one white student of the nine.
Panther Lake Elementary is a diverse school, Boyd said. The school also has a high free and reduced lunch rate and located in a high-trauma, high poverty area, Boyd said.
“It’s hard because there are 700 kids and one counselor,” Boyd said. “We’re not meeting the needs, there’s no way, we try but we need more counselors and support.”
Disproportionality is a huge problem in the juvenile court system, Holter said.
This program is also in line with King County’s zero youth detention road map, Holter said. That road map was released as construction continues on a new youth detention center.
“We see tons of kids in the system but hardly any are incarcerated,” Holter said. She said that of 250,000 youth in King County 40 were detained in the juvenile facility on an average day.
From January to June of 2017, 48.3 youths were in detention on an average day, with 754 total being admitted for an average stay of 12.92 days.
The boys in this class are more responsive and better listeners than the teenagers Burr said. Co-facilitators help try to keep students engaged while the other instructor presents the lesson.
Burr said she hopes the lessons make a difference but students need to use the skills. For her caseload, it depends on the intent of the teen and if you can build a rapport, and get them to come into their court-ordered appointments.
Boyd said she hopes this program can also be done with girls of the same age range in January. Prevention work has been hard since she spends a lot of her time as counselor to 700 students responding to behavior situations.
“Even here we do a lot of responding to behaviors, removing students from class and evacuating classes and so sometimes it’s hard to get to the preventative work cause you’re always responding to a crisis, which is challenging in a public school,” Boyd said.