In this podcast, Kari Kerr and Kristi Hall-Jiran talk about Safer Tomorrows, Grand Forks, North Dakota's Defending Childhood Initiative. Safer Tomorrows implemented universal violence prevention programming in public, private, and rural schools across Grand Forks County, beginning with pre-kindergarten and extending to high school. The initative is part of the Department of Justice's Defending Childhood Demonstration Program, which funded eight sites across the country to respond to the problem of children's exposure to violence. The Center for Court Innovation has produced a report on Safer Tomorrows, a series of reports on five other sites, and a report that condenses lessons learned across the sites.
Resources mentioned in this podcast:
The following is a transcript:
AVNI MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Hi. I'm Avni Majithia-Sejpal, senior writer at the Center for Court Innovation. Welcome to another episode of our New Thinking Podcast. Today, we're here to talk about Safer Tomorrows. Safer Tomorrows was established in Grand Forks County, North Dakota, as part of the Department of Justice-funded Defending Childhood Demonstration Project, which was designed to address children's exposure to violence through eight demonstration sites across the country.
We, at the Center for Court Innovation, have just released individual process evaluation reports on six of these eight sites, as well as a multi-site report that condenses the lessons learned through our research. Today, from Safer Tomorrows, we are talking to: Kari Kerr, director of community innovations at the Community Violence Intervention Center and leadership team member of the Safer Tomorrows project, amongst others; and Kristi Hall-Jiran, executive director of the Community Violence Intervention Center. Kari and Kristi, welcome to our podcast.
KARI KERR: Thank you for having us.
KRISTI HALL-JIRAN: Thanks. We're glad to be here.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Let's begin by talking a little bit about the project itself. Safer Tomorrows aimed to implement universal prevention programming in Grand Forks County. My question is, what made you decide to focus on school-based prevention programming?
KERR: I think there are a couple of factors that went into our decision. The main one was, our state had just actually passed anti-bullying laws requiring schools to develop some type of a policy or a response, and so the timing was really good in terms of approaching the school system.
Then, we also know that, obviously, for our school system, we can have a wide reach of youth that are attending school. Certainly, from kindergarten all the way up to 12th grade, and we went beyond that and looked at some of the pre-schools in our community as well.
HALL-JIRAN: I think just to add to that, too. We also had really spent some time developing a good, strong working relationship with the schools in several years before the project. We really felt like we already had the leadership of the school system on board, the superintendent served on our agency's board of directors, and so really felt that the timing was right. We already have the collaborative relationship and so the natural outcome was to focus on that way.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: When we talk about violence, what are some of the forms of violence, specifically pertaining to children and teenagers, that need to be addressed urgently in your county?
KERR: When we first developed our Safer Tomorrows project, we, of course, wanted to be very inclusive of all types of violence and really make sure that we were addressing anything that could affect the child, and we also wanted to look at how to prevent violence and not just to intervene. We did want to also look at the things that were most impacting our children. What we did before we even started developing our programming was really to do a needs assessment as to what the most prevalent forms of violence were.
As we looked at existing statistics and then gathered additional data, what we found was that the kinds of violence that we saw the most in our county was pertaining mostly to bullying in the school system, or just anywhere, and then also children exposed to domestic violence at home. Though we had pure statistics on dating violence, we heard from a lot of our stakeholders that they felt that that was a pretty primary issue as well.
Though we tried to address all of the issues, those are the areas that we're really focusing on.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Can you talk to us a little bit about the different features or highlights of the project?
HALL-JIRAN: We've looked at it in three different areas. We designed the program around intervention effort, so any child age 0 to 17 that is being impacted in some way by violence, we wanted to make sure we were finding a way to intervene. Then, we also looked at prevention. How could we start building the kind of programming in our community that would prevent this type of violence from happening so that two generations from now we don't even have to have these conversations anymore?
Then, the third piece, we really tried to build a very strong data and evaluation component because we really wanted to base our decisions on available data and then ongoing evaluation so that we could treat what we implemented as we found out if that was working or not, or as different types of violence change and, hopefully, if we were seeing good results we could start making some of those adjustments.
As far as specific things that are under each of those areas, maybe I'll have Kari talk about that a little bit.
KERR: Sure. We were able to implement a variety of different prevention programs, many of which are evidence-based. Some of those included Al's Pals, which is for our youngest population, that's bullying prevention program. We also implemented “The Fourth R” for health classes, Friendships at Work, which is a positive friendship curriculum.
A couple of different programs looking at some of the online issues that can happen with students, that would be Digital Citizenship. Then, we also have one of our schools implement Lessons from Literature. Then we did Coaching Boys into Men.
We really had a variety of prevention programming starting from, again the early years all the way up to 12th grade. As Kristi mentioned, we had a lot of intervention services offered as far as specialized therapy services and the Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota has provided restorative justice programming and Healthy Families. We've also been able to work with some of our families ...
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Given that you're targeting children and teenagers in such a wide age range, from 0 through 17, how did you adapt your methods to different ages and specifically to the youngest children?
HALL-JIRAN: You're right. That's a very wide age range for, not just prevention, but also for area of intervention as well. As Kari mentioned, for the youngest kid, we implemented Al's Pals. It's a puppet program. It's basically working with kids as they're playing, so we really try to adapt to what would be age-appropriate.
As we got more into elementary school, the curriculum focuses more on respect and being kind to each other and all those kinds of things. Then as we moved in the middle school age, we looked a little bit more at anti-bullying and respectful friendship, and what would healthy friendship look like, how do we treat each other, those kinds of things. Then, of course, as we got to the high school level, we looked more at dating violence and healthy relationships.
Really just trying to adapt the programming that we picked to really sit with these age groups and what would be most primary for that group.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: How did you adapt evidence-based and promising practices and tools, especially given that your target audience spans such a wide age range?
KERR: I think one of the ones that we ended up having to adapt a little bit the most was our Friendships at Work curriculum, which is more of a promising practice. It was initially designed for seventh grade classes. As we were implementing, we were receiving feedback from some of the teachers, for a variety of reasons that they felt it would be better suited for fifth grade.
Again, the author of that curriculum went back in to adjust some of the language that we used as we're teaching it, some of the videos that she used, some of the examples that she would give just to adjust that down to fifth grade level because, again, you're going down three levels from what it was initially designed for. We're finding that it's working really well in the fifth grade right now.
HALL-JIRAN: One of the other adjustments that we made was Lessons from Literature. That was something that we were originally going to do in our high school English classes, but the curriculum was just designed in Canada and the literature that they used in Canada was not going to work for our high schools here in Grand Forks. We basically did some research and decided to implement “The Fourth R” in our health classes rather than Lessons from Literature.
It was just some of the speed bumps along the way, just look at what else you can do instead and just always try to adapt to your population.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: That's really interesting. What were some of the challenges you encountered as you went about implementing your various programs?
KERR: I think anytime you are involved in a whole county of people, which involves seven different school districts and thousands of kids, it's really hard to just make sure that it's all being well-taught uniformly. We know that all the curriculum that we implemented is only as good as it actually is at the level of the teacher implementing it or the staff person implementing it. I think it's always a challenge just to make sure that everybody is doing it and doing it in a consistent way.
HALL-JIRAN: I would just add to that, as Kari mentioned, just when you've got seven different initiatives that are all trying to implement on a whole spectrum of ages 0 to 17, all the way from intervention through prevention, you have got a lot of moving parts and I think you absolutely cannot over-communicate at that point. Just trying to make sure everybody knew what each other was doing and that we were all keeping that common vision in front of us was really a constant challenge.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: What are some of the lessons learned that you can pass on to other counties that might be interested in implementing prevention programming that is similar to yours.
HALL-JIRAN: I think one of the biggest lessons that we learned is to just plan for more time than you think you're going to need. I think, especially if it is involving federal funds, it's really important to have adequate time to have the review process that you need in place for different publications and things like that. That was one of the things that sometimes the schools have found a little bit.
KERR: I think in addition to that, just having good communication that's ongoing with your collaborative partners is important. We had lots of committees that we've set up to make sure that everyone stayed on top of what was happening in our project. We did that through actual face-to-face meetings, as well as email and phone conversations, and then being flexible as the project continues to make adaptations as they're needed.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: What are some of the results that you have been witnessing.
HALL-JIRAN: We will be continuing to monitor this on an ongoing basis. Some of the most exciting results that we've seen thus far is that, at the elementary level, we've seen 42 percent fewer fourth and fifth grade students who are reporting being bullied. We've also had 46 percent fewer high school students who have reported that during the past six months someone has forced them to do something sexual that they did not want to do. We've had 28 percent fewer fourth through 12th grade students reporting that they witnessed violence in their home.
We're very excited about the preliminary results and really are interested to see where this will go in the future.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Wonderful! Thanks so much for speaking to me. That was really interesting.
KERR: Thank you so much. We really appreciate it.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: I'm Avni Majithia-Sejpal from the Center of Court Innovation and I've been speaking to Kari Kerr and Kristi Hall-Jiran about the Grand Forks, North Dakota Defending Childhood Initiative, Safer Tomorrows. Visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org to download other podcasts and reports on Defending Childhood Demonstration project. Thanks so much for listening.