Story 13 of 20: Meet Coach Harris and Peace Jackson by George Jackson and Eric Harris
Umoja supports adults who are helping students develop the behaviors, skills, attitudes, and strategies crucial to academic success in high school and beyond. Our Restorative Justice (RJ) team, in partnership with our schools, develops a student-centered culture that starts in the Peace Room and permeates school-wide. For story #13 in our series of 20 stories celebrating 20 years of Umoja, we asked Coach Harris, Security officer at Al Raby High School, and Umoja RJ Specialist, George Jackson, to reflect on the changes they’ve seen at Al Raby thanks to Umoja’s RJ program.
Coach Harris: I just transitioned to Security this school year. Before that, I was upstairs working with kids with special needs. This is my first time being out in the hallways, interacting with students. Before Umoja was here, discipline was handled very differently. Students would get suspended and just take the days. They didn’t care. They wanted to go to in-school-suspension for the day. I spent a lot of time “looking in” from up there.
Having the Peace Room here at Al Raby is an outlet for our staff. Now that I’m on this side, the staff support from Umoja is awesome. For many of our students, Security officers were seen as all business and domination, but having Peace Jackson (what the adults and students at Al Raby call George when he’s in the building) is an outlet for all of us. They see Security less as “big bad guys” now. There’s a slow shift. I’ve had students earlier in the year that would not come talk to me and now they are opening up. Students let me know when they need to see Peace Jackson, but I also offer that I’m available to them. I think we’re about halfway there. By the end of the year, I hope it’ll be more of “I need Coach Harris” than looking at me and the Security team as just “discipline.”
George Jackson: Instead of “Go to class, do this, do that, be quiet, give me your phone,” we work with everyone in this building on knowing and understanding the “why.” We talk about the “why” together. We figure out a plan. We understand the impact of the “why.”
CH: I’ve spent the better part of this year learning as much as I can about working with teenagers. Students try to understand our staff and our staff try to understand our students and I think that’s key. Having Umoja here makes me want to learn more about it—to know and understand the “why.” I want to get out and be a part of something that’s great for our school.
I’ve been seeing progress from the beginning of the school year to now. Working with Umoja has made me feel a lot better about my student interactions and more confident in my conversations with them. Students begin to understand that they do have someone, outside of their home that they can come and talk to. Many kids don’t get that. I’ve seen situations where a student is at a 10, Jackson comes in at a level one, and he’s de-escalating the situation just by listening. The student turns around and thinks, “Okay, maybe I can go back to class. Maybe I just needed that 5-minute talk.” We’re good at doing that for each other. There are times when I’ll step in and be there for a student, just listen and then we’ll switch. “I got this one” and “Now it’s your turn, Jackson.” It is part of this system we’re building and the kids see that. They know that I have Jackson’s back and he has mine. This whole Umoja…I’m just so happy and so fortunate that we’re starting this here. We’ve always been a small school. We’re like a family. Bringing in Umoja is like bringing another family into the mix. It’s important that Umoja is a part of the Al Raby family.
GJ: I feel like I’m a part of the family, too. I feel like I’m that older uncle that just wants everyone to sit down and talk to each other. Umoja touches every individual in the building. It may not look perfect, but the relationship building is happening—at every level. We’ve hosted Professional Development opportunities almost every month for the staff at Al Raby.
CH: Jackson is always around! He’s not sitting in the Peace Room all day. He’s out in the halls with us, he’s talking to students, and he’s interacting with staff (George used to work Security at Sullivan High School and was a huge ally to Umoja and the Peace Room during his time there). We’re proactive. We’re not sitting around waiting for something bad to happen.
By being proactive, more and more of Al Raby students are opening up. Our students can’t hide their problems and we don’t want them to. They are coming out and they are more comfortable with us. They are more outspoken. They are being honest. Our students are being honest! They care. In the past, what they didn’t know, they didn’t care about. They know stuff about each other now and they know stuff about themselves. The kids see the Peace Room as a comfortable place that they can go and they can be themselves and talk. Someone’s going to listen to them and someone’s going to follow up with them after the talking happens.
GJ: We’ve really worked together to tap into our students’ emotional needs. This isn’t just about keeping them physically safe. We need to keep them emotionally and mentally safe. We need to tap into their emotions. We need to be there for their feelings. We’re getting there.
CH: I see the biggest shift in my social interactions with our students. That’s big for me. If a student can have a conversation with me, they might eventually trust me. I want to build trust with our students. Our students are human beings. I want our students to see me as the same. I’m not trying to step in as any of our students’ parents, but I am here if they need me. I tell them every single day that I’m here for them if they need me. I’m still learning. I carry what Umoja and Jackson have taught me everywhere I go. I’m learning how to show myself to our students.