The recent tragic and violent death of Derrion Albert has evoked community grief for the horrible loss of one of our children and the loss for his family. Local and national media has given voice to concern for the safety of all our children on the streets of Chicago and elsewhere. This tragedy will be greater if current attention to this public health issue—violence in our schools—is not transformed into new direction in programs that are innovative and effective. Police protection will never be enough.
As an adult and child psychoanalyst, I would like to put forth one small, inexpensive but effective program now beginning its fourth year. The Analytic Service to Adolescents Program (ASAP), is a joint treatment and research program of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and Morton Alternative School (MAS), a high school in Cicero. MAS is an alternative school where students expelled from the two high schools in the area are given one more chance to turn things around in their troubled lives, stay in school and graduate.
After two years of consulting at the school, one of the school’s part-time social workers, Dave Myles, the school’s principal Rudy Hernandez, and I designed a program that includes groups for all forty students in the school along with weekly individual counseling for 8-10 students selected by the teachers. These students are unable to make enough use of group intervention. The truth is, we would like to provide all forty students with individual counseling but we currently do not have adequate funding.
In trying to evaluate the impact of our efforts, all forty students fill out simple self reporting depression, anxiety, and stress level tests at the beginning of the year and in June. In our first two years we decreased levels of depression and anxiety, usually the feelings behind drug use, violent and disruptive behavior, and poor school performance. More importantly, those levels were even more significantly reduced in the students who received the individual counseling. These are students who are regularly referred for psychological help to local mental health clinics and agencies, but never make it. We provide service right in school as part of their school experience.
In addition, we provide ongoing support for teachers through clinical meetings and in-service programs. Parents of all forty students are also provided support, and offered regular presentations titled, “Parenting, the Impossible Profession.” And no surprise—the parents of students who accept our support, or come to our dinners and talks, are the parents of the students who slowly begin to succeed toward graduation.
And finally, the cost of ASAP? $20,000 per year, with funds from foundation grants, and individual donors who believe in what we do. $20,000 compared with the $35,000 to $60,000 it costs to incarcerate a child in our country.
Most of our students, once in the safe, reliable and predictable environment of our school leave much of their aggressive behavior, gang affiliations, and tough veneer at the door. Then they are just kids trying desperately to be listened to, responded to, and with ambitions to move forward. Some come from very difficult family situations, and others have experienced unspeakable trauma. We address and acknowledge the feelings connected to those experiences, but more importantly, respond to the part of them that wants to do better, that wants to learn, that wants to be meaningfully connected to each other and to caring adults.
There is no mystery to why our program works. It’s pretty basic, and I believe with proper support from principals, superintendents, and communities ASAP could work in any neighborhood in the city or suburbs. We see it working every day.
I hope similar programs emerge out of the horrible loss of Derrion, and we can seriously and creatively work toward protecting all our children. Nothing less is acceptable.