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School Program Helps Kids Stay Out of Prison

Spokane’s community intervention approach introduces SRT in a grassroots fashion across school districts and community systems to reach youth and their parents throughout the community.
(Click on image for larger diagram.)
Spokane’s community intervention approach introduces SRT in a grassroots fashion across school districts and community systems to reach youth and their parents throughout the community.

Nancy Jahns felt like she was accomplishing good things, but that it was too little—and a little too late.

Jahns, a corrections officer in Spokane, WA, teaches a cognitive behavioral programming course that has had good results, but she kept feeling that something more could be done. Inmates told her they wished they had had the program before they got into trouble, and so the inspiration hit for refining the program for the classroom.

"It just made common sense," Jahns said. She reasoned that if the curriculum used in prisons was reducing recidivism, a similar curriculum for schools could reduce truancy and other problems and ultimately help prevent youth from entering the corrections system.

The theory proved correct. As part of a Weed and Seed strategy, the Washington State Department of Corrections designed and launched the Spokane Youth for Social Responsibility (SYSR) project in 2001 in partnership with the Spokane Sheriff's Community Oriented Policing Effort, Spokane schools, and Edgecliff Community of Spokane. SYSR is an integrated approach to intervention that addresses pressing issues in the school environment such as truancy, drugs, and violence when they first arise.

SYSR's main component is the social responsibility training (SRT) curriculum—now used in almost every school in Spokane—which is designed to reduce risk factors and enhance social, moral, and behavioral reasoning. SRT is based on moral recognition therapy, a leading corrections program. Its exercises are designed to alter how students think and how they make judgments and decisions about right and wrong and to promote actions and behaviors focused on changing negative relationships.

The project was easy to implement and cost effective, Jahns said. SYSR combined existing corrections and educational staff and other resources at startup and used $9,800 in Weed and Seed grant funds to deliver SRT in classrooms.

Just as moral recognition therapy has shown success over the years (some studies have shown overall recidivism is cut by 30–60 percent during the 5 years following treatment and by 24–30 percent over 6–10 years), so too has SRT demonstrated remarkable changes in some of Spokane's most challenging schools.

In its pilot year, SRT was offered in two high schools. Ferris High experienced a reduction in short-term suspensions, and Spokane Valley Alternative High, notorious for violence and unruly student behavior, had even more dramatic results. It had previously reported two to three fights and regular law enforcement contacts weekly, with only five students completing full credits the entire year. With SRT as a base program, there were no fights and only two nonschool-related arrests. In addition, 59 students completed full credits that year.

There have been "amazing changes" in some students in a short time, according to Carole Meyer, the principal at Havermill High School. The data collected by the school shows significant gains in grade point averages (including one student who went from a 0.5 to a 3.1 grade point average), reduced truancy, and reduced referrals to the principal's office. And people are constantly calling Meyer about the program.

With SRT, "kids take responsibility for their own lives," Meyer said. "We haven't found anything to match this program in quality."

SYSR also offers the SRT classes to the Spokane Juvenile Truancy Court as an alternative to detention for truant students, helping these high-risk youth to reestablish ties to school. Other pilot programs are now beginning, including truancy alternative, parent class, and new detention programs. The Corrections Learning Network, which produces programs for correctional television, is planning a video series to help incarcerated parents learn how to build and maintain relationships with their children. Jahns suggested that other Weed and Seed sites could arrange trainings with their Corrections Learning Network sites.

SYSR also is expanding to Indian country. Jahns noted that special training is available to facilitators, and the curriculum is easy to adapt to include cultural issues.

Jahns said SYSR's success shows that corrections can take a supportive role in future community efforts to help initiate preventative programs. She believes the steps to take in the future have to be a little bigger than they have been in the past.

"We've been nurturing," she said. "This population needs more."

For further information, contact:

Nancy Jahns
Corrections officer in Spokane, WA

Carole Meyer
Principal at Havermill High School in Spokane, WA

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