Social worker Paul Fagen meets with peer mediators, called Peace Keepers, at Chicago Talent Development High School. Fagen says students need the conflict-resolution program and other social-emotional supports because neighborhood violence has left them constantly on guard against perceived threats. Credit: Photo by Marc Monaghan

Early one spring morning at Chicago Talent Development High School, social worker Paul Fagen hands out bags with insignia from different colleges as a reward for the two students who have arrived on time for today’s peer mediator meeting. Next time, he promises, there will be breakfast—an additional incentive to lure mediators to school early.

“They love the idea of being a Peace Keeper,” Fagen later explains.  “They don’t love the idea of coming to school early.” Though most of the students are late to the before-school meeting, where they share their mediation experiences with each other, the school’s “Keep the Peace” initiative is in full swing: Students have participated 159 times in conflict resolution sessions led by student Peace Keepers.

After some brief chitchat—“We will talk about if there is any swag we should get,” like T-shirts to identify the peer mediators—and a reminder to come earlier next week, the meeting kicks off.

Damon Washington, a sophomore who just became a Peace Keeper, tells the group that he resolved his first conflict yesterday. Fagen asks how it went.

“It was crazy, but at the same time it was a lot of fun,” Damon says. “They kept arguing. It took them a long time to calm down.”

Fagen asks Damon what strategies he used. “I told them, you should be more mature. You are arguing like you’re freshmen,” Damon replies.

Fagen suggests that instead of criticizing the students, Damon could have asked them to do what they learned in freshman seminar—take a deep breath. He’ll soon make a “cheat sheet” for the Peace Keepers, as a reminder of the different strategies they can use.

Damon continues, “I told him he was being disrespectful, and he could get a detention for that.”

Fagen reminds Damon that he shouldn’t threaten students with detentions he can’t give. “Being disrespectful is too vague. I would remind him of the ground rules,” he says. The rules are simple: no name calling, no interrupting, be fully committed to the process and don’t bring up information that is unrelated to the issues being discussed.

*          *          *

At Chicago Talent Development High, a charter school located in rough West Garfield Park, Keep the Peace is a necessity, Fagen explains.  Even for “the most put-together student,” the journey to and from school is often fraught with stress and danger, he explains. And violence can erupt unexpectedly. Earlier this year, a shooting a block away disrupted a mobile medical van’s visit to the school to provide physicals and immunizations. Staff kept students inside, away from the chaos. 

Exposure to violence “raises the hyper-vigilance of our students,” Fagen says. “They have to be on guard.” As a result, even an accidental bump in the hallway could be perceived as a threat and lead to a fight, so the school has to have some way to help students resolve conflict peacefully.

To help ease the educational path of students exposed to violence or trauma, social workers like Fagen can play a vital role in providing mental health support. But the luxury of a full-time social worker who can devote time to these issues is rare in CPS.

Instead, most of the district’s social workers spend the bulk of their time working with special education students. Guidance counselors could help fill the gap, but they spend much of their time organizing and administering tests. Outside agencies have social workers in some schools, but it is unclear if anyone keeps track of where they work or how many students they reach.

Meanwhile, few schools have the money to hire their own social workers. The most recent CPS budget data show that just 16 schools have done so.

Fagen came to Chicago Talent Development through a PepsiCo Foundation-funded initiative called Diplomas Now, which operates in 25 schools in 11 cities, and won a federal Investing in Innovation grant in 2010. Chicago Talent is the only high school in the city that participates. (City Year, the AmeriCorps initiative that bring young people to cities for a year of service, also provides support through Diplomas Now.)

The program, run by Johns Hopkins University and Communities in Schools, is designed to closely monitor students’ behavior, academics and attendance on a bi-weekly basis, and provide help for students who fall behind.

Yet the extra support from Diplomas Now is only a stop-gap, unless money is found to replace the federal grant when it runs out in fiscal year 2015.

Fagen, a licensed clinical social worker, spent a year as a CPS consultant helping high schools coordinate behavior supports for students. His dry humor and calm, matter-of-fact demeanor give him a youthful energy. Students know to come to him for hand lotion and snacks. Nearly half a dozen times one day, they comment on the mustache he is growing for an upcoming play—when he’s not working, Fagen’s an accomplished professional actor.

Keep the Peace helps to fulfill what Fagen considers to be the most important part of his job: ensuring that social-emotional support reaches not just the 10 percent of students who might be headed for trouble, but the 90 percent who are doing OK and need to stay on track. Fagen notes that he’s also trained the security staff and the dean to “de-escalate”—or calm down—students who are upset. It’s all part of a strategy to nurture troubled students and encourage them to participate in school rather than respond in ways that could create even more problems.

He calls it a “mental health prevention plan.”

*          *          *

After the Keep the Peace session, Fagen observes a teacher’s morning meeting.  The 20-minute meeting starts with a 5-minute “mood check-in,” after which teachers discreetly pull aside upset students to see if they can get through the day or need extra support.

Next is a 10-minute mini-lesson on a topic like Black History Month, social-emotional learning or goal-setting. Once a week, the mini-lesson consists of students setting goals to improve grades, behavior or attendance. And every day, the meeting ends with a compliment circle, where one student gets the chance to have everyone say something nice about him or her.

“As a mental health professional, I am constantly pushing more schoolwide interventions,” Fagen says. “If we do the compliment circle every day, over time, that kid who’s seeking attention might get it [in a more positive way]. If that were absent, you might have some of those kids become withdrawn.”

In between today’s meetings with students and staff, Fagen enters student data into the computer so that the system can track their progress. He uses any down time to catch up on data entry because on many days, he’s constantly in motion.  Typically, his day stretches from 7:45 a.m., when he arrives at work, until school ends at 4 p.m.

Recently, Fagen worked with staff members from a local shelter for women and children to run two groups for students who have been exposed to violence and trauma. Staff members who know students are dealing with specific issues approach those students about the groups. Only when the student agrees to participate does the teacher pass the information along to Fagen, who asks the students about violence they have witnessed or experienced and screens them for symptoms of trauma exposure.

But Fagen points out that the standard screening tool doesn’t cut it. It refers to one traumatic experience, but many of his students have seen several violent incidents at home or in the community.

“Anecdotally, I can imagine that I can screen every student in my building and all of them will have had one of the trauma indicators, whether or not they are showing symptoms,” Fagen says. “It is almost a universal need. I have yet to screen a student who has only had one traumatic experience.”

At lunchtime, Fagen meets with a group of three girls who come in holding foam food trays. They’re part of the Illinois Subsequent Pregnancy Program at Sinai Community Institute, which aims to help teen moms prevent a second pregnancy. The students get training to become peer health educators as well as support and social activities. “Making it not all gloom and doom” is important, Fagen says. “We get so caught up in [the fact] that this is serious business, we forget there is room for levity, for celebrating.”

Fagen has the young women fill out sheets listing their goals, then offers them a taste of dark chocolate and eats his lunch—a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, chips, dried apricots and almonds.

Next is a game of stress bingo. The cards list different categories: external stressors, internal stressors, symptoms of stress, and stress relievers. Students use chips to mark off squares each time Fagen calls out a stressor, symptom or stress reliever that is on their bingo card.

It’s also a tool for discussion, as Fagen explains the different concepts so the students understand their own relationships to stress. “Why would it be a stressor if someone in your family was using drugs?” Fagen asks.

“The police might come to your house and arrest you,” one girl says.

Another student points out that getting all A’s could actually be a source of stress. “Other people might try to bring you down,” she notes.

Fagen bridges the conversation to their children’s well-being, noting that too much stress can prompt teen moms to shake their babies and, potentially, harm them.

After the session, Fagen talks about ways to get the same information out to the whole school. “What if we had a stress bingo game for every classroom, and that was a morning lesson for a week?” Fagen asks.

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This story has been updated to list the correct funding source for Chicago Talent Development High School’s Diplomas Now program.

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