While city and police officials scramble to find ways to address rising violence, one Austin community group is going back to basics to defuse school yard fights that could escalate into more violent encounters.
The South Austin Community Council Coalition is retooling the age-old practice of school patrols to escort students from May Elementary School and Michele Clark High School to prevent fights. SACCC began patrolling the schools this spring.
However, SACCC activist Elce Redmond prefers the term “protective accompaniment” to describe the group’s efforts.
Protective accompaniment, he explained, has been used in conflict zones in foreign countries for years where non-military personnel would escort human rights workers.
On a recent trip to the Middle East, Redmond used the practice to walk Palestinian children in the West Bank to and from school. The extra presence of workers would ensure Israelis settlers would not attack the Palestinian students, said Redmond, who does international human rights organizing with Christian Peacemaker Teams.
“It’s simple, but it can be very effective,” he said. “It is something that has been around for a really long time, but it has to be reconstituted for the 21st Century.”
He believed such an idea could work with curbing fights at May, 512 S. Lavergne, and Clark, 5101 W. Harrison. Both schools, Redmond explained, have been plagued by fights in recent months. The extra adult presence would help create a sense of order and security for students, he insists.
The idea is to get students moving along after school instead of congregating in groups on corners and where fights usually break out.
“We’re trying to break the kids up when they are screwing around and playing with each other because most times they end up in fights,” said Redmond.
Bob Vondrasek, executive director of SACCC, and Redmond man the streets near both schools to monitor students as they make their way home. They man hot spots like neighborhood candy and corner stores where they say fights tend to break out. Most fights, they added, happen off school grounds.
“The fights will be two second graders, and they will act like it is a real fight and everybody cheers them on…. At least half the time it is girls,” Vondrasek said.
SACCC began using school patrols in early February at May Elementary and Clark High School when Redmond noticed a group of older teens hanging around the school near dismissal. Redmond recalled that the teens were there just to pick fights.
“A week before the program got started four kids got jumped, one pretty seriously,” said Clark Principal Henry West. “People up out of nowhere just came and started beating our kids. That was scary.”
Julia Thornton, a May Elementary School special education teacher, believes the patrols will have a positive impact on students, especially since the majority of the patrols volunteers are males.
“When you see men present, it makes a difference in children, especially when men are basically absent from our communities,” she said.
West has also noticed a decrease in students getting jumped, thanks to Vondrasek and Redmond’s presence. West insisted that students should feel safe going to and from school, but noted that his students are jumped on by older teens who do not attend Clark.
“If they (students) feel that they could get to and from school safely then that works out,” West said.
Vondrasek linked the increase in after school fights to Renaissance 2010, the city’s school restructuring program. Schools dismantled under that program forced students to cross different gang territories, Vondrasek said. He added that students who should have been attending the former Austin High School went to places like Clemente and Wells high schools.
Both Redmond and Vondrasek noted fights occurred almost daily at those schools. The group called a meeting with the school officials and area police commanders and soon after launched their school patrol effort.
“With our campaign around protective accompaniment,” explained Redmond, “we reduced the fights at May Elementary School just by being there and getting to know the kids; not yelling or screaming at them, but trying to break the fights up by being a visible presence on a regular basis.”
But Vondrasek wants to go beyond just providing patrols. He wants to pinpoint troubled students and connect them to supportive services. SACCC also wants to recruit more parents, churches and other community groups for their patrols.
But as for the patrols, they work, says Emmanuel Ryan, assistant principal as May Elementary School, who’s seen a decrease in fights from every other day to about one every two weeks.
“They are doing a helpful job,” he said.