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Oakland School's Peer-to-Peer Counseling Program Helps Students Cope With Trauma

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A woman with light-brown skin, a tattoo sleeve on her left arm, and long gray-brown hair appears to read out loud from a piece of paper she holds as a Black male student, a Latinx male student and a Black female student stand or sit near her inside a high school classroom. The mood is relaxed and happy.
Robin Noel Morales (right), co-founder of Ocelotl, which runs a peer-to-peer mentoring program, talks to (from left, seated) 11th grader Darius Mason, 12th grader Junior Magana Ceja and 12th grader Habeeb Tiamiyu before meeting their middle school mentees at Madison Park Academy in Oakland on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. The program, co-founded by Bianca Lorenz and Morales, has 11th and 12th grade students mentor two middle school students each week. (Marlena Sloss/KQED)

A week after a student discharged a gun on campus at Madison Park Academy in Oakland’s Sobrante Park neighborhood on Aug. 29, 2022, it wasn’t just the adults who were on edge.

“It was fifth period at the time, and I just started about 10 minutes in and we heard over the intercom the principal, ‘It's on lockdown! The school's on lockdown,’” senior Habeeb Tiamiyu recalled. “You could really tell it's serious because of the tone of her voice.”

“Everyone started to panic because we don't know what's going on out there,” said senior Laila Goodman, who began texting her mom from inside the school.

These high school students, who are part of the Madison Park Academy Mentoring Program, wanted to step in and help their younger peers. Their program’s goal is to help create positivity inside the school located in one of the city’s neighborhoods most affected by systemic racism.

The campus, which is a combined middle and high school, had gone into lockdown for hours. The shooting had happened during lunch period in the middle school part of campus, when a 12-year-old accidentally shot a 13-year-old, who was hospitalized and survived.

“I didn't know whether we were going to make it out,” Laila said. “I hated thinking like that, but it's the first thing that came to mind.”

She and her peers would take on a leadership role in the following days. Some mentors, like them, were already in their second year of being trained through the mentorship program, and though the shooting was scary and disturbing, they began to rely on their training as they looked for ways to respond.

How trauma intervention happens

In the following days, the mentorship class began having its own discussion about whether it would help, or hurt, for them to try to speak with the middle schoolers.

“So I feel like this isn't a type of situation that we can just put behind us because it was intense,” said London Edwards, a senior.

The mentors decided to write a script and practiced it. Once they were ready, 37 peer-to-peer mentors, accompanied by an adult staffer, fanned out in teams of four across nearly a dozen classrooms to talk with middle school students about coping strategies for trauma.

Some of the sessions were led by the school’s "language navigators," who spoke Spanish and met with English language learner classes.

Five students sit side by side, a Black boy, two Black girls, a Latina girl, and a Latino boy.
Peer-to-peer mentor program 12th grade mentors (from left) Habeeb Tiamiyu, London Edwards, Laila Goodman, Xiomara Armenta and Dany Santos sit for a portrait at Madison Park Academy in Oakland on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. (Marlena Sloss/KQED)

In a packed classroom of fidgety eighth graders, London stood up at the board, script in hand.

“Why do you think we are here to talk to you about trauma?” she asked them.

No one initially spoke up, but, unperturbed, London asked them to turn and talk about it with their friends. The eighth graders burst into excited chatter. When London called them back to answer, several hands were raised.

“I think you 11th and 12th graders are here to talk to us because of what happened on Monday,” one girl said.

The mentors then asked the students what they do to feel better after something traumatic happens, again giving them time to talk together first.

Several hands rose, and the students listened quietly to each other’s answers — which ranged broadly from writing down emotions on a piece of paper to painting or listening to music.

The mentor spoke up again, telling them that there's a lot they can do when trauma happens, and that some responses are more positive than others, but suppressing might not be a good idea in the long run. Then began a lively back-and-forth between mentors and eighth graders throughout the room, who gave a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to various choices they could make if they were to experience trauma.

Kids are the experts in their own lives

Robin Noel Morales, who founded the peer-to-peer program in 2015 (PDF), watched the process unfold: the fruits of those efforts realized during one of the school’s toughest moments.

In 2015, when Morales, a mental health therapist, arrived at Oakland Unified’s Madison Park 6–12 campus, which is majority Black and Latinx, she noticed that the teaching staff — almost all of whom came from outside the neighborhood — was referring about 250 students a year (out of 700 total students) for therapy or behavior issues. She suspected the adults had trouble understanding students’ lived experiences.

“It wasn’t possible to individually sit down with everyone, so I really did try to take on the idea that the school was my client. That means the adults as well as the kids,” she recalled.

Morales also believed that basic mental health for a school goes beyond deep psychotherapy.

“People just want to have someone lay eyes on them,” she said. “And that thing about, ‘How are you doing?’ And then someone’s actually got time for the answer.”

She found a colleague who aligned with her on social justice issues in Bianca Lorenz, the school’s college and career pathways coach. They began building the peer-to-peer program, expanding on a model that Morales had seen when she was working with kids who were incarcerated. Those young people were each partnered with a mentor from San Francisco State University.

A Latina woman with long brown hair smiles at the camera with a colorful wall in the background.
Bianca Lorenz, co-founder of Ocelotl, which runs a peer-to-peer mentor program, stands for a portrait at Madison Park Academy in Oakland on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. (Marlena Sloss/KQED)

“If you are open and pretty brave and courageous and kids can trust you, and then you come with real information that feels like it is necessary and needed, and you are consistent and put some time in, then it is a recipe we know works,” Morales said.

She and Lorenz also co-founded Ocelotl two years ago and are now consulting with other school districts, such as Hayward, helping them strengthen their peer-based mentoring programs.

Developing strong bonds

Each student mentor is expected to take on the role of campus emotional leader, demonstrating care and compassion. Ideally, they act as strong buffers to the emotionally challenging experience of being a middle schooler, helping their younger peers navigate relationships with one another and react in healthy ways when feeling threatened.

Take Giana Mason. She had been near tears in sixth grade at Madison Park, facing a lot of bullying online and in the halls. She felt she was to the point where she’d have to defend herself physically. Her meetings with her mentor, Laila Goodman, showed her there were other options. “She helped me stay out of a lot of drama,” Giana said. “So now it's like I can kind of think about what she's told me and help my friends with it and stuff.”

Two black female high school students sit in class and laugh together.
Twelfth grader Laila Goodman (left) and her previous mentee, seventh grader Giana Mason, sit for a portrait at Madison Park Academy in Oakland on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. (Marlena Sloss/KQED)

The mentor training, overseen by mental health professionals, is a rigorous, six-week course, which teaches students about the assessments and documentation mental health care professionals use.

“So kids kind of come into this being like, ‘I’m not sure if I am up to the task,’” said Lorenz, the coach at Madison Park. “‘Can I be someone that someone can count on, or can I not be?’”

Some mentors who select the course are “A” students, but Lorenz said the program also has mentors who have struggled academically and socially in the past and who can relate to kids getting in trouble at school.

“So I think for a lot of kids, it is sometimes shifting even their own perspective of themselves,” she said. “Some of the toughest things [about] the training is kids themselves really believing in it, and shifting how they show up every day.”

Long-term investment

This year, for the first time, the Oakland school district is investing $10,000 from its budget to support Madison Park’s peer-to-peer mentoring program. The district has over $103 million in COVID relief money from the state and federal governments for addressing students' behavioral and mental health needs.

The district has another $63 million to support and expand the community schools model, also used by Madison Park Academy, district-wide. Both Morales and Lorenz — a school district employee whose position as college and career coach is paid for by Measure H (previously known as Measure N), which was just renewed by voters this year — would like to see another position funded at the school to expand the mentorship program, so more students could join and help change school culture.

Lorenz said students take the mentorship course for credit as an elective, and they gain clinical skills and also are introduced to a career path.

A month after the push into classrooms, some of the mentors felt it had been worth it that, in a way, the trauma was a shared experience that had brought the school community closer together.

“I feel like they [middle schoolers] might feel even more safe with us because we're able to talk about hard topics with them. So I feel like it's a good step in the direction of mentoring,” Laila said.

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