Last year, Milwaukee’s public schools became a testing ground for a national program designed to reduce school violence. Under the Violence Free Zone Initiative, specially-trained youth mentors from the neighborhood walk the halls of local high schools, breaking up fights and diffusing potentially violent situations. It appears the strategy has been working in the six Milwaukee high schools that have implemented the program.
It’s the noon hour at South Division High School on Milwaukee’s near south side. It’s one of the city’s largest public schools with more than 1500 students. Many are Latino and African American. Fabiana Guzman is stationed outside the cafeteria, making sure the kids get to lunch on time, and in an orderly fashion. The 31-year-old notices something, as she walks past a couple students.
“Oh, I smell the aroma of marijuana. Is that you guys?”
Guzman calls for backup on her walkie talkie.
“Hey Avilas, can you meet me over here at the boys bathroom? Stick your head in there. Anyone in there? Nothing? Must have been the kids who were standing there,” Guzman says.
Guzman says the smell of marijuana permeates the hallways as kids sneak outside or into a restroom to get high. But, she’s not just on the lookout for drugs.
She’s also trying to keep the peace in a school that knows it has a half dozen active gangs, and even experienced a student being murdered there a few years ago. A couple of kids got in a fight, and one student picked up the other and slammed his head into a wall, killing him.
In an effort to prevent violence, Guzman holds mediation sessions among rivaling students. Those meetings occur several times a week in a quiet room behind the school cafeteria.
“When we do our mediations, everybody is very respectful. We take turns speaking. We have to lay down the rules before we engage our mediation. Sometimes it gets a little chaotic, voices raise, tempers flare. But, basically this is the time for them to get whatever it is they have on their chests off. So, if you’re angry, why are you angry? What is causing you to be upset?” Guzman says.
Guzman also works one on one with at-risk students, guiding them on how to resolve conflicts at school and home without resorting to violence. One student she approached after noticing he had anger issues is 18-year-old Dimitric Johnson, a senior. He had been involved in fights, was active in a gang and was on the verge of getting kicked out of school.
“I was selling drugs at the time, and my mom was real depressed about it. But, I did it for the money so we could pay our rent. Then I saw all my guys getting locked up, and I don’t want to follow in the path of my pops neither. He’s been locked up in jail. I decided to stop, and graduate from high school, and do something constructive with my life,” Johnson says.
Now, Johnson’s future appears bright. He’s going to graduate next week, and plans on enrolling in MATC’s welding program. Johnson credits the Violence Free Zone initiative with helping him turn around his life. It simply interjected another caring adult into his school experience.
“I’m talking to Fabiana now,” Johnson says.
Of the six schools involved in the program, there’s been more than a 20% reduction in violence during the first half of the school year. Those results are promising to the parent organization, the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a non-profit based in Washington. Director Kwame Johnson attributes the success to the special bond at-risk kids form with youth advisers.
“Young men and women who come from those same communities of the schools they are working in, and also face some of the same challenges that the young people in the schools are going through and can speak to them from real life experience of ways they were able to avoid tough situations and succeed in life,” Johnson says.
If you’re wondering about Fabiana Guzman who mentors students at South Division, she grew up as part of the only Hispanic family in a predominantly black neighborhood on Milwaukee’s north side. She says she got involved in gangs as a teenager, and her parents shuffled her among several MPS schools trying to keep her out of trouble. She eventually ended up at Homestead High in Mequon where she says she was introduced to drugs. But at age 19, Guzman says she decided to turn around her life.
As for the Violence Free Zone Initiative she’s now part of, it’s been expanded to high schools in Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta and Dallas. They have also experienced positive results and now consider Milwaukee’s program their role model.