Talk, not fists: Philadelphia students with discipline issues learn how to defuse conflict

A man in a yellow hoodie stands next to his son in a black t-shirt and a woman in a blue dress
Luis Rios, center, with his father Nelson Rios, left, and program counselor Samantha Petroski at Luis' graduation from Temple University’s Center for Conflict Management and Media Impact Youth Conflict Specialists program on Friday, Nov. 17. (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

Luis Rios used to have one way to react when he felt he was being dissed: with his fists.

Luis, 15, aspires to be an architect and eventually work in his father’s construction firm. He was a straight A student at Philadelphia’s Hopkinson Elementary School, where he was good at math and loved to draw. He enrolled at Bodine High School for International Affairs, a special admission school that he and his father, Nelson, hoped would keep him away from trouble.

It wasn’t to be.

He felt out of place at Bodine, and his home life was in turmoil. During his first year at the school, he got into fights. He was barred from participating in sports due to his disciplinary infractions and sagging grades. This only made him angrier, setting off a vicious cycle. Eventually, after several incidents and the appropriate due process proceedings, he was sent for sophomore year to Achieve Academy East, a “transition” school for students with discipline infractions, where they can work on controlling their anger and learning how to solve problems without resorting to violence.

Last week, Luis was one of 27 students at the school who received certifications for completing a six-week program run by Temple University on conflict resolution for youth. In the program, which began in 2022, the students learn de-escalation strategies, primarily through intensive discussion and role-playing.

The school, which is privately managed by Specialized Education Services, keeps students for 45-day placements, after which they transition back to other schools.

“The Temple program helped me control my emotions, to defuse the situation,” Luis said.

The biggest thing he learned? “How to keep your mouth shut,” he said. “You can’t be mad when things don’t go your way.”

When he went to get his certificate during a ceremony at Achieve, Luis — a talented baseball and football player and boxer — was so excited that he executed a full flip on his way to the stage. And Luis did so well in the program that he qualified to be a youth conflict specialist intern and work with other young people, said clinical director Samantha Petroski.

Luis’s cohort is the fourth to complete the program, she said, which by spring will be in seven district schools. Since its inception, 225 students have graduated from the program, said Tricia Jones, who runs it for Temple.

“We come in and find them so open and ready to talk about things that matter, to take on challenges, how they want to do things differently,” Jones said at the ceremony where Rios and others got their certificates. “There are a lot of places to spend their time, and it’s special they choose to do this,” she said.

Jones said in a later interview that the program helps students learn skills that empower them “to move forward in life and achieve their goals.”

‘Think about other people’s feelings’

Nylaah Booker, 14 was sent to Achieve after she was caught at Finletter Elementary School with “contraband,” which means either alcohol or drugs, on her person. She said she agreed to hold it for someone else. She also had, by her own admission, “a little temper problem.”

“I was a good student,” she said. “I got myself into a situation.”

Conflict can escalate quickly for students — a joking comment that someone takes seriously can devolve into cussing, pushing, and even worse. A fight can eventually lead to gunfire, “or we can talk about it and hug it out,” Nylaah said.

And that possibility of violence isn’t just an abstraction for Nylaah: She lost her brother to gun violence. Then her mother had a heart attack not long after.

“There was a lot of stuff I was angry at,” she said. She said she has “bad anxiety” and has trouble just talking to people and making friends.

Now, she said, “I don’t react to petty things.” She learned skills during the Temple program that kept her away from “being angry all the time.”

Having completed the conflict resolution program, she plans to complete her school year at Franklin Learning Center and, like Luis, will also become a mentor to other students – a paid job. Nylaah is eager to share what she’s learned.

“A key is to think about other people’s feelings, not just your own, she said. “It helped me mature more, it helped me definitely see things differently.”

Both Nylaah and Luis have been at Achieve since the start of the school year. At Achieve, in addition to learning how to deal with conflict and his emotions, Luis is also learning to lean into his talents.

“I like to draw, for me personally, art is a way for me to calm down so I can use art to express my feelings,” he said.

Even now, Luis said he really doesn’t regret anything he did in the past, but vows to do better in the future.

“His lack of focus in school was in reference to everything happening at home,” Nelson Rios said. His parents are divorced, and Rios’ business had difficulties that forced the family out of their home. His children went from “having everything” to living on the edge.

He also understands his son’s anger and his journey. “I’ve been to jail,” Nelson Rios said.

But, in Luis’s world, controlling your anger could mean life or death, he said, and he’s grateful his son is on a better path.

“I grew up in the boxing world,” Nelson said, who runs a boxing program for youth and has taught Luis to box since he was little. “But now we live in a day and age when you can’t put your hands up because you’re afraid the other person will pull out a gun.”

His message now: “It doesn’t make you less of a man to avoid arguments.”

Luis will be going to Excel Central, an “accelerated” high school for students who are over-age and under-credited. Because of his rocky year at Bodine, Luis fell behind on accumulating credits.

“They will help him catch up, and he can graduate from there or go to a regular district school,” said Jennifer Green, the school’s executive director.

He will also be able to play sports for a regular district high school if he does well.

Luis said he wants to stay to graduate at Excel Central and then go to Florida State University.

“I don’t want to go to jail,” he said. “I want to go to college.”

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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