In colonial America, knowing that the Red Coats would show up pretty much guaranteed that a fight would take place.
Some 240 or so years later, knowing that the Blue Coats will show up at a school in Erie, Pa., ensures the opposite.
A volunteer organization started 10 years ago by Daryl Craig, a former gang member in Buffalo, N.Y., and now-Erie County Councilman Andre Horton, the Non-Violence Initiative members (now known as the Blue Coats) turn up outside city schools around the time of the morning bell, during lunch hour, in school hallways, during dismissal, at sporting events and at other activities open to the public. Taking a mentoring approach to stopping conflicts before they start, the Blue Coats' 20 to 30 volunteers use their training and sense of compassion to foster a connection between administrators, students and the community. Since the Blue Coats began their outreach efforts in 2005, violence around the nine school buildings where they maintain a presence has sharply declined, including a 57.9 percent drop in incidents at East High School and a 65.9 percent decline at Strong Vincent High School. These positive results led to Erie’s Public Schools recent receipt of a $300,000 grant from the Erie Community Foundation, which will ensure that the school district can continue its commitment to fund the Blue Coats to remain on the streets, in the hallways and in the stands.
Craig, better known as “Brother D,” started a grassroots campaign to visit streets known for gang activity and spread a message of non-violence as his way of paying back to the community, first in Buffalo, then in Erie following a job transfer. Several other volunteers had joined this proactive community-based effort before a murder in the general area and a non-fatal shooting during an East High basketball game brought their efforts to the attention of Erie Public Schools administrators in January 2009.
“We never had a shooting incident in a school before, but during a basketball game, there was a shooting in the stands. A young lady was hit and there was a lot of panic, but fortunately everybody ended up okay,” says Superintendent Jay Badams. “I remember the next day standing shoulder to shoulder with Brother D, greeting kids and working to bring calm. It was quite an introduction.”
Following that introduction, Erie’s Public Schools and the Non-Violence Initiative began formalizing the partnership that has grown to include a strong rapport with the Erie School District Police under Chief Timothy Vona, and led to the significant reduction in violence.
“I saw firsthand the need and that it could work. We devised a schedule and picked out some locations that needed extra help and extra attention. We gathered our troops and trained them on the responsibilities and commitment they should have to the community, and we went out with the hope we could make a difference. There were a lot of fights in that first couple of months, but now we’re happy to say that most times, in our presence, there may be one fight a year on school grounds,” Craig says.
“When he says fight, we’re talking big events. There are a couple of main actors leading the fighting, but there are also ancillary groups, spectators egging kids on … it can take over the entire front yard of a high school and there are always threats that there could be a knife or a gun,” says Badams. “Whenever there’s a flashpoint incident, there are always people who want to have a vigil and march, but when it comes to putting in time day to day, they don’t want to be involved.”
Craig describes the situation early on as pandemonium, but says that through persistence and collaboration, violence has steadily declined: “Erie’s Public Schools administrators admitted they needed help in certain areas from a community perspective and they were willing to learn cultural things they might not have otherwise known. I think overall, our schools have been allowed to be viewed as separate from the community, but that’s untrue. They are staffed by community members and are part of the community. It’s all about getting the community to invest in the schools and it’s working.”
“Today, the Blue Coats serve as respected and recognizable members of both our schools and neighborhoods. The Blue Coats are uniquely positioned because they are deeply familiar with the families, friends, churches and community centers that are at the heart of many of our students’ lives and, in this unique role, they are able to build trust with students and families and encourage them to transfer that trust and respect to their school community,’ Badams says.
The Blue Coats help Erie schools in four primary areas: They support non-violent and conflict resolution strategies among students and staff, build and strengthen relationships between students and staff, provide training to educators on cultural competencies and serve as familiar, positive adult role models for inner-city youth in order to reinforce positive behavior.
Although Badams cautions that the school district takes great care to make it clear that the Blue Coats are not affiliated with law enforcement, Chief Vona makes it equally clear that his 14-member department values the relationship with the volunteer organization.
“We have great rapport with the Blue Coats. If there’s an incident after school hours, Brother D gets on the phone right away to let us know there could spillover the next school day and we may need to be proactive, whether it’s through mediating or by having additional manpower at that location. We have each other on speed dial,” Vona says. “The members are very respected in the community. They can de-escalate incidents by working with families and alleviating issues from moving into the schools.”
Vona especially values the Blue Coats’ efforts to get a feel for what is going on at sporting events – some of which are played outside his jurisdiction at local universities — and says that with their help, he’s noticed a definite reduction in serious incidents since he became chief in 2007: “We’re stopping incidents before they happen. They’re basically another set of eyes and ears that the community and the school district has out there to help.”
More than just that desire to help is required of volunteers who want to become Blue Coats. Curtis Jones, another leader in the Non-Violence Initiative, explains that in addition to requiring that volunteers have at least a high school diploma and pass a stringent vetting process, they also must complete school district classes and workshops required for third-party organizations, as well as Non-Violence Initiative-specific trainings based on Martin Luther King’s six principles of non-violence and training on interacting with multiple generations. Students who volunteer to be Junior Blue Coats, receiving extra mentoring and working with the adults to build community from within, also must meet strict qualifications related to grades, attendance and behavior.
“Our training is rooted in the 1950s and 1960s, but has evolved for the 21st century and continues to grow and evolve based on the needs of schools. Because our organization is growing, it can adapt to changing needs,” Jones says.
Without completing all of the required training, volunteers can’t receive the ID badge and clearance that identify them as a formal agent of the school district who will enforce its policies and procedures. And they also need the training to receive the jacket that gave the organization its name, which Craig explains: “When we started at Wayne Elementary School, we ordered jackets that matched the colors of the signs we had been taking out on the street, blue coats with white lettering that said Non-Violence Initiative on the back. During the holidays, we got handmade cards from the kids thanking us, addressed to ‘Dear Mr. Blue Coat.’ That was our first indication this was going to work.”