Violence prevention program changing culture at Milwaukee’s toughest high schools

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In recent years at Bradley Tech High School, uniformed police officers had become a regular sight. Frequent fights and violent incidents were commonplace.

Since 2008, however, a different type of uniformed individual has been present. Clad in simple red-and black T-shirts and armed with no more than a walkie-talkie and street smarts, seven young adults, part of the Milwaukee Violence Free Zone Initiative, roam the hallways. Neither hall monitors nor safety aides, their presence nevertheless has led to a 50 percent reduction in nonviolent incidents and a 25 percent decline in violent incidents.

What has contributed to such success? Finding out which students were the most influential — and most disruptive — and winning them over. That change does not happen overnight, but it is slowly happening at eight of Milwaukee’s most challenged high schools.

The initiative, a community-based youth violence prevention and reduction program run by the Washington D.C.-based Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, acts as the catalyst.

"Everything we do is about relationships — whether it is with the student, parent, teacher, whomever," said Andre Robinson, director of Milwaukee’s program.

"Everything we do is about relationships — whether it is with the student, parent, teacher, whomever," said Andre Robinson, director of Milwaukee’s program. "That’s why it works." The Greater Milwaukee Foundation has given nearly $200,000 to the program, which began at South Division in 2005. Running Rebels heads up the program at Bay View, Bradley Tech, Groppi, Hamilton, Madison, Pulaski, North Division, School of Career and Technical Education, South Division, Vincent and Washington high schools. It also is in place at Lincoln and Roosevelt middle schools.

Milwaukee is one of three cities using the program, which began in 1997 as a way to stop the violence between rival gangs at a D.C. public housing project. The program has stood out because of its outcomes and its support from the school district. A case study of participating schools conducted by Baylor University in 2009 found that the program helped improve safety, reduce suspensions and truancy and improve academic performance.

“Milwaukee is a demonstration model for us,” said Kwame Johnson, director of the National Violence Free Zone Project. “It is the first time we’ve ever gotten support from the school system and local foundations.”

A team of seven youth advisers and a site supervisor work closely with each school’s safety aides, teachers, counselors and staff to identify troublesome students, help mediate problems and prevent incidents from occurring. Overall, about 60 youth advisers are working in the participating Milwaukee high schools. Typically in their early 20s and 30s and from the same neighborhoods or backgrounds as students, youth advisers wear several hats — mediator, mentor, coach and confidante.

“Our past mistakes put us in a position to form relationships with these students,” said Jesse Garcia, South Division’s site supervisor. “We share some of the same struggles.”

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