Students at JLA are reminded that change starts with themselves
In 2004, after nearly a decade as program director at Jubilee Leadership Academy (JLA), a Christian alternative boarding school for troubled boys ages 13-18 in Prescott, WA, Rick Griffin decided to take a job in Phoenix, AZ, to work with adults with developmental disabilities. There, he began to see similarities between the issues they were having and what he saw in the kids at JLA.
“There was a cognitive reason these adults I was working with couldn’t respond to things that were being asked or expected of them,” Griffin says. “It was based on their inability to communicate what was going on with them, which manifested into behaviors we were seeing.” He began to study Dr. Bruce Perry’s work on how trauma impacts the brain, and that’s when Griffin stumbled upon the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), and related ACEs science.
“It was a big ‘light bulb’ moment for me,” he recalls.
“We’d been doing it all wrong”, he says, when it came to the culture of punitive approaches and discipline he had helped establish at JLA. The school tried to control kids by punishing them, he says. Minor rule infractions -- such as not wearing the school uniform, being out of the dorm room past curfew, messy rooms, and not doing homework -- resulted in “hill runs.” Kids were ordered to run the large, grassy hill on campus, five runs for each infraction.
“Some kids had up to 100 hill runs at a time,” Griffin says, “although that was an impossible number for kids to complete.”
When kids wouldn’t, or couldn’t, do all their hill runs, they were restricted to their rooms. Major infractions like pushing, shoving, running away, and other types of verbal and physical aggression resulted in meal restrictions. Of course the kids had to eat, but they were limited to oatmeal for breakfast, and rice and beans for lunch and dinner, with no spices or seasoning to enhance the flavor.
In 2009, the board of directors at JLA asked Griffin to return as the school’s executive director. He agreed, but with a condition, he said: “You have to be willing to let me try something different.” They agreed.
Griffin returned to JLA with a mission to change the entire culture of the school. During a diversity training he led in nearby Walla Walla, Griffin found the spark he needed to set in motion the culture change he was seeking when he ran into Teri Barila, co-founder and CEO of the Children’s Resilience Initiative (CRI) and a leader in the nascent ACEs movement.
“I had the awareness of ACES, the tip of the iceberg stuff,” says Griffin, “but Teri had been on a trauma-informed kick, getting the word out in our community, training businesses and entire sectors on ACEs.”
After their serendipitous meeting that day, Barila shared what she had been learning about ACEs, and the changes that were beginning to take shape in the community. Griffin says he didn’t exactly know what the implementation approach would be at JLA, but he began to tell his staff there would be more concentrated changes focused around ACEs.
“I didn’t know what it going to look like, I just knew we couldn’t continue to do things the same way,” Griffin says. He also knew “we couldn’t change everything all at once, we had to do it in stages.” He started by terminating all his staff, requiring everyone to reapply for their jobs. While the majority of his staff were hired back, “about a quarter of the staff resigned after a few weeks,” Griffin says. He also limited the numbers of students to keep things more manageable during the initial phase.
In 2010, Barila connected Griffin with Jim Sporleder, who was principal of Lincoln High School, an alternative high school where he had just started implementing practices based on ACEs science. (The schools was later featured in the 2015 documentary film Paper Tigers.)
“Jim came to a JLA board meeting, and that ignited things quickly for us,” says Griffin. Sporleder trained staff and students on ACEs science, brain research, triggers, and trauma-informed practices. Griffin implemented daily “focus of concern” meetings, where staff could discuss behaviors they were seeing in the kids with a new lens, and focus on “what they were trying to communicate with us and what their current needs were.”
Griffin says JLA continued to work through new and different strategies, trying to find what worked, but there were still some staff hanging on to old practices. “Much of our staff was resistant, like, ‘this won’t work’,” Griffin recalls. After about a year, Griffin says, “we went all in.” JLA staff had to buy in to the new trauma-informed approach, or they had to go. Some left.
By 2014, JLA implemented a trauma-informed approach across all programs. One of the most important issues was to find new ways to provide discipline to the youth. The focus had to be on “how to teach new behaviors, not just writing kids up, but really teaching them new ways to respond, and regulate,” says Griffin. He hired an intervention specialist to write up all rule infractions in a trauma-informed way, to help youth and staff make the transition.
“Focus of concern” meetings were changed to “focus of support” meetings. This encouraged staff to think about not just behavior, but what supports the youth needed. All youth had medical check ups and were asked what health issues were important to them. The students began to run community meetings, with staff assigned to take notes and help student leaders facilitate the meetings.
Griffin says they also hired new clinical staff with expertise in trauma and the skills to implement the new trauma-informed approach in clinical sessions with the youth. The clinicians worked with the youth in “tackling trauma” sessions, teaching them how to tell their story in groups with each other.
In school, the focus shifted to fostering physical and emotional safety on a daily basis. Griffin says his staff had to think about “how they could intervene when students started to disregulate.” This involved a lot of training for staff, and JLA implemented a “pick five” strategy, focusing on the 42 building blocks for resilience described in the resilience deck of cards developed by CRI. Griffin says staff were trained on the resilience factors, and told to pick the five that most resonated with them, and to “go make that happen with their students.”
Resilience factors include helping students experience success by mastering a skill, developing communication skills, establishing trust, and learning to ask for, and receive help.
Although JLA can handle 60 students, it now has 39 students and 35 staff. Given the fluctuations in student population, staff turnover, and the constant emerging science and research on ACEs, training is ongoing for both staff and students. Training occurs twice a week and focuses on how trauma impacts the brain, triggers kids, and the effect this has on their developing brains and bodies. JLA’s training coordinator works with the students, while Griffin trains the staff. Griffin says staff and students used to go through training together, “but we quickly learned they have different needs.”
As we tour the classrooms, I notice three brain diagrams hanging on the wall. But these aren’t typical diagrams delineating the parts of the brain. These brains are color-coded and describe different brain states. The red brain is survival state, yellow is emotional state, and green is executive state. Each brain state describes what is happening inside the brain. The survival brain asks: “Am I safe?” The emotional brain asks: “Am I loved?” And the executive brain asks: “What can I learn?” Griffin says everyone on campus uses the diagrams, and staff members carry pocket versions around with them on campus. They are used as a training tool when kids begin to disregulate, so they can identify what brain state they are in. Griffin says most staff and youth don’t need to refer to the diagrams anymore, as this concept and language is so engrained in their culture it is automatic for most. The diagrams and brain states are also used as training material during new parent and student orientation.
The survival brain asks: "Am I safe?" The emotional brain asks: "Am I loved?" The executive brain asks: "What can I learn?"
Books like Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biology Becomes Your Biography and How You Can Heal, by science writer Donna Jackson Nakazawa, and movies like Antwone Fisher are used as training tools for youth to understand how their own trauma may be impacting them. I met a young man who had been at JLA for three years, and was approaching graduation. He read Childhood Disrupted as part of his ongoing healing, and wrote about what he learned from the book, as well as how this knowledge relates to his own story. When asked about his thoughts on the book, he smiled and said: “I loved it, it’s a great book.” He said he could relate to the stories captured in the book and “it helped me understand myself better.”
In addition to robust academic, athletic, and vocational offerings, the school provides each student with a case manager. JLA provides much more comprehensive mental health support now. All students see an onsite therapist regularly. Griffin says finding the right clinical staff was difficult, as many “were stuck in the traditional approaches to therapy.” He went through five counselors in two years, but eventually found the right man for the job of clinical director, someone who understood ACEs science and was more open to nontraditional methods of clinical interventions, including trauma-informed practices. Griffin hired him to lead the clinical team, which has supported the culture shift across all clinical programs and services offered at JLA.
Family counseling and group counseling are also provided to students and their families. Chapel services are offered daily, and although they’re not mandatory, many students participate. Griffin said the youth learn to share their life stories in chapel, including the trauma they may have experienced. With the help of staff who lead chapel, the young men begin to experience healing through sharing their stories among their entrusted JLA community.
Currently, JLA has little data measuring the effects of implementing a trauma-informed approach, but Griffin says he plans to develop a data collection process. He wants to measure how students’ knowledge of trauma-informed care and the ACEs science has changed, and how this impacts how they behave and learn.
“Externally we can see things are changing”, Griffin says, “but we want to know how a kid, knowing what is happening in his brain and body, changes how he reacts and learns.”