25 JANUARY 2002

Positive Peer Culture: Debating what works what to keep and what to lose ...

Peer discipline by teens reconsidered

When a teenage boy starts to go out of control at Nebraska's facility for juvenile offenders, as many as five other boys surround him and wrestle him to the ground on his back, holding his arms, legs and torso.

Most of these officially sanctioned encounters, known informally as "takedowns," last only a few minutes, until the youth cools down. But at times they last hours and escalate into aggressive confrontations.

"You can get slammed so hard, they grab you round your neck sometimes, and if you struggle, they put pressure on you. I've been sore for a week after," said Timothy LaMar Washington, 18, who was released from Nebraska's Youth and Rehabilitation Treatment Center in Kearney in November.

Last year, there were 1,344 takedowns at the Kearney facility, according to the state's juvenile services administration. That is twice as many as in 1996.

Nebraska is one of several states, including Illinois, that have allowed the use of takedowns at facilities for juvenile offenders or troubled youths. Advocates say the so-called peer confinement helps teenagers learn how to help each other, but critics say the practice gives dangerous and often violent youths too much power.

Now, the tide appears to be turning away from takedowns as officials grapple with juvenile offenders who have more serious substance abuse and mental health problems than in the past. These seriously disturbed youths often have difficulty exercising self-control and handling aggression, making them ill-suited for this kind of group discipline.

Last week, Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns asked the state Legislature for nearly $1 million in annual funding to hire more staff at Kearney, setting the stage for the elimination of peer confinements. "I want it stopped as quickly as I can get it stopped," Johanns said. "Discipline will be handled by staff."

In Illinois, the Department of Children and Family Services has proposed a rule that would end peer restraint at facilities in Rockford, Freeport and Coal Valley within four years. The General Assembly is considering the proposal. "We really feel this is an adult's responsibility, not a child's, and that it's especially inappropriate for a child to lay hands on another child who has been a victim of abuse or neglect," said Tom Finnegan, DCFS chief of staff for operations.

Late last year, Michigan's Family Independence Agency also decided to stop using peer restraint in nine centers for girls and boys. The practice will be phased out gradually. "The population of kids we are serving now are more violent, difficult, with intractable behavioral and emotional problems that need a lot of specialized intervention," said Marlys Schultjer, interim director of Michigan's Bureau of Juvenile Justice.

Goal is to teach

Peer restraint has been used in Michigan since 1972, when the state became one of the early adopters of Positive Peer Culture, a program designed to teach the value of helping each other instead of turning on each other. Nebraska followed in 1974. "The [youths] are there to support each other in turning their lives around," said Harry Vorrath, who developed the program three decades ago and now lives in El Cajon, Calif.

Peer restraint is "an act of caring, not abuse," Vorrath said.

Juvenile offenders in Positive Peer Culture programs are put in groups of nine or more who live together, eat together, study together and participate in group therapy sessions at least five times a week.

How program works

They are taught specific ways to identify problem behavior and try to stop other youths when they start losing their tempers and threatening their fellows. If a situation gets worse, the group is supposed to restrain the teenager and help him acknowledge his behavior. Advocates believe that youths will respond more readily to their peers than to adults.

All restraint is closely supervised by staff, said Tim O'Dea, Kearney's administrator.

"Our staff are trained in this, and they're guiding the youth in what to say and do," he said. Injuries are rare: There have been only five in the past three years, none of them serious. But while Kearney's staff members win widespread praise, there simply aren't enough of them, according to a 1999 report prepared for Nebraska by Chinn Planning, a consulting firm. Understaffing is chronic at the facility, as is crowding, the report found.

"The truth is, peer restraint was one of the ways to keep down staff levels and still try to maintain safety in a severely overcrowded facility," said state Sen. Nancy Thompson, a strong advocate for reforms in Nebraska's juvenile justice system.

With too few beds and too much demand, juvenile offenders are leaving Kearney after an average stay of only four months, seriously jeopardizing "the effectiveness of the current treatment and education program," the Chinn report said. What's more, offenders' specialized needs have become overwhelming. When a group of 50 boys at Kearney was analyzed, 90 percent were found to have mild to moderate mental health symptoms, while 84 percent had abused drugs or alcohol.

Recognizing these pressing needs, Thompson and Johanns have helped establish more intensive psychological services as well as more extensive programs for chemical dependency, sexual abuse and community-based services. "Our hope is to get more treatments to these kids," Johanns said, noting the entire Positive Peer Culture program was now under review. "Most programs are moving away from this," he added.

Most studies show that peer restraint and related programs such as peer mediation are ineffective because "delinquent kids reinforce each others' negative behaviors and beliefs," said Sharon Mihalic, director of program evaluation at the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence in Boulder, Colo. "You get kids with these kinds of problems, and they don't necessarily know how to deal with their own aggression, much less others'," said Bob Thorud, a psychologist and president of The Mill, a not-for-profit facility for troubled youth in Rockford, Ill.

In practice, groups at Kearney often are dominated by aggressive teenagers, Washington said. Sometimes, he said, an irritated teenager persuades his buddies to gang up on another teen and begin a takedown. Washington said he was subjected to seven takedowns in his nine months at the facility. His willingness to talk about his experiences with local reporters touched off the controversy that led to Nebraska's proposed policy changes.

Teen power politics

"Truthfully, I never trusted my group" because several members were mean or vengeful and would use information from group sessions against each other, he said.

Staff often didn't know what was going on or wouldn't intervene, he said. "They give these kids too much power over other kids," said Shirley Ballinger, Washington's mother.

"I don't know why," Washington said. "We had full control when we were on the streets and we made bad decisions then. You just learn to play the group and hide what's really going on."


By Judith Graham, Chicago Tribune national correspondent




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