Break Away to Prevention

by Michelle Branigan

When William Bailey, executive director of Indiana University's Indiana Prevention Resource Center (IPRC), Co-Director, Institute for Drug Abuse and Prevention, and an associate professor of applied health science, teaches the course Drug Use in American Society, he drives home the need for drug prevention with a mop and bucket metaphor. "There are three basic parts of proposed solutions to the drug problem: first is law enforcement, second is treatment, and third is prevention," he says. "If you were to come home today and find water pouring from your ceiling, there are different strategies you could use to solve the problem. You could try to catch the water in a bucket; that's law enforcement--capture and contain. Or you could mop up the water; that's treatment. But we'll never be able to afford enough mops and buckets to fix the problem. The only thing that will solve the problem is for somebody to get up in the ceiling and fix the source; that's prevention." With the help of the IPRC, the City of Bloomington Parks and Recreation Department is attempting to fix the source of the problem for twelve- to fourteen-year-olds who are at risk through an innovative, federally funded, three year venture called Project Break Away. Advocates of the project hope it can realign troubled young people before their behavior problems escalate into the more serious ones characterizing older delinquent youths.

Project Break Away's first alumni, about forty youths who "graduated" in August 1996, all chose the project as an alternative to more traditional probationary programs operated through the juvenile court system. Project Break Away participants spend three afternoons a week during the school year in the program, and in the summers, they meet every afternoon for several hours. The program's home base is Rhino's Youth Center, an all-ages club located near Bloomington's Courthouse Square. Project Break Away offers participants a range of educational and social activities. Sessions on alcohol, tobacco, and other drug (ATOD) issues, living skills, conflict resolution, and peer resistance are interspersed with recreational activities and job training. To maintain interest and to provide added incentive for the youths to modify their behavior, Fridays are reserved for excursions, such as a recent trip to King's Island or camping. All participants have volunteer mentors from the community, often college students, with whom they meet at least once a week. In the summer, the participants have the option of receiving a modest stipend for working on community volunteer projects. Collectively, these activities are intended to build participants' self-esteem, help them learn about the consequences of their actions, and allow them to gain control over their behavior.

There is a mandatory parent component in Project Break Away, and parents may also take advantage of additional meetings, something encouraged through free transportation, babysitting services, and meals. The project staff is also available for parents to call for assistance or for information on community resources. These services help parents feel less isolated and consequently more able to effectively support their children through difficult times. "The parents know about the contract we have with their children, so they can reinforce it at home. Most parents are willing to help if it has to do with their children," Project Break Away Director Leslie Skooglund says.

Unlike many other youth probation programs, young people are never kicked out of Project Break Away. "They may not be invited to participate in certain activities if they have acted out," Skooglund explains, "but they are not kicked out of the program." The program has this policy because, as Monroe County Prosecutor Carl Salzmann puts it, "these kids already have learned that failure is their lot in life. They are comfortable with it. Project Break Away is designed to give them a fresh start." To provide this, Skooglund and her staff, which includes a probation officer, a social worker, teachers, recreational leaders, and volunteer mentors, work with the youths individually to help them set realistic behavioral goals. Skooglund, who with a co-worker conceived of the project and then worked with Bailey and his staff to write the grant proposal for the project, believes that it has partly been this emphasis on individualized planning for the participants that has contributed to the project's success.

While the IPRC oversaw the grant application for Project Break Away, IPRC's sister organization, the Institute for Drug Abuse Prevention (IDAP), will conduct rigorous, long-term evaluation. Project Break Away participants are preassessed using a range of survey instruments--their knowledge of ATOD issues, school attendance records, and probation reports, for instance. Over time, IDAP evaluators will compare pre- and postassessments with those of a control group of youths who have entered the juvenile probation system but who are not involved with Project Break Away. IDAP's Jim Koch, an evaluation specialist who is supervising the evaluation, says Project Break Away is also part of a cross-site evaluation, one of fifty projects across the United States. supplying data for a national baseline. This baseline will help identify effective prevention strategies for the future.

Skooglund points out the importance of qualitative evaluation, too. Part of Koch's job, therefore, is to observe participants and to talk with staff. "What the kids are getting out of it does not necessarily match our original list of goals and objectives," Skooglund says. "How do you measure attitude and outlook, for instance?" A long, heartfelt letter sent to the staff by one graduate, full of warmth and optimism, concluded with testimony illustrating that Project Break Away is a strong and positive experience for its participants: "If you can tell me when Project Break Away starts next year, I will try to come see you when I can. You probably already know this, but I am starting high school next year, and I don't know how I am going to make it through the year without your support. I know we've had our differences, but I'm so glad that you were behind us." Several parents of Project Break Away participants began noticing positive changes as early as three months into the project, commenting that their children seemed more lighthearted, more willing to talk, happier, and more responsive than before they began attending Project Break Away.

An important key to understanding the youths in Project Break Away and how to help them is understanding their anger. "There is a tendency for them to get angry when something is out of their comfort zone," Skooglund says. Although low literacy skills initially caused many participants to act out, Skooglund and her staff have learned to anticipate and more effectively deal with situations involving written materials. "We would get a lot of anger when we did self-esteem worksheets," she notes. "These kids are with their peers, some of whom already have literacy skills. If you are in the ninth grade and haven't grasped a concept yet, you are uncomfortable. Now that we know it's a problem we pair the kids up with staff so we aren't asking someone to do something they can't do," Skooglund explains.

One surprise for the project staff has been that girls are as violent as boys. "We wrote in the grant proposal that we expected our target population to be about 75 to 85 percent males, but it is 50 percent males and 50 percent females, referred to us at the same rate," Skooglund says. "Girls are now in gangs, and they are more reactionary than boys. Whereas a boy might harbor resentment and then later blow, the girls' responses tend to be immediate."

Skills training and modeling are two of the ways in which the staff helped participants gain control of their emotions. "One way they've been able to build their self-esteem, and possible reputation at school, is by threatening violence and committing violent acts," Skooglund reflects. "At first, we would hear one girl say to another, 'meet me in such and such a spot because I'm gonna beat the crap out of you.' Later, one girl began with, 'I don't like it when you call me a bitch,' and both girls used 'I' statements. We stood there while they hashed it out, and when it was done, they hugged," she observes. The staff has also noticed that participants are much more apt to talk and to display interest and involvement when they are within small, familiar groups. To take advantage of this, participants now spend part of each day meeting in small groups, perhaps in a coffeehouse or a park with the staff member they know best.

Skooglund admits that it is not possible to succinctly state what makes a youth at risk. "Being born" is what makes a kid at risk, she says only half-jokingly. Bailey agrees that there are no easy answers to the question of why some youth end up in trouble. "In epidemiology, we talk about a 'web of causation,'" he explains. "In talking about the onset of youth smoking alone, there are at least 150 well documented correlates, and you can break each of them down into subcategories- exposure, history, whether tobacco is grown in the community, and so forth. Maybe it takes three or four of these correlates to account for as much as 1 percent of the variance."

Bailey can point to other data, though, that illustrates that prevention efforts matter. "Indiana has substantially greater drug problems than the national average for virtually every drug," Bailey states. He cites Indiana history and culture as part of the reason for this. "We tend to be one of the most conservative states in terms of what we ask the government to do and what we ask local schools to do," he says. He also believes that the rural nature of the state "lulls people into a false sense of security. You can go into a farm bureau in any county and buy syringes stocked for veterinary use."

Indiana's relationship to the rest of the nation also bears mentioning. Geography is in part to blame for the accessibility of drugs to youth in the state. "Indiana is the crossroads of America. Heroin and cocaine are run up and down Interstate 65 from Florida and Mexico to Chicago," Bailey notes. Youth's immersion in mass media also makes a difference. "How many schoolteachers know about rohypnol, the date rape drug?" Bailey queries. "Kids do. Something is on MTV and it's seen all around the world, whereas try to spread that information among adults in the community who need it to make decisions and you can't get that information out as fast." With the help of the IPRC, Indiana is rapidly developing the infrastructure it needs to effectively address drug prevention and other issues related to dealing with youth who are at risk.

If all goes well, over a three-year period Project Break Away will help 120 youths who are at risk develop the skills they need to stay out of trouble. Because of the rigorous evaluation that is a part of the grant design, the project may serve as a model for subsequent programs badly needed throughout Indiana and in other states. Overall, Project Break Away has already proven successful because it "gives the kids what they need and want--structure and responsibility," Salzmann says. Koch agrees, noting that by the third month of the project, he had already seen a dramatic decrease in violent behavior among participants. Participants are in the program for a full year, but Salzmann cautions that it is only part of a larger solution. "A social network for the long term is also needed," he says. "Recidivism will decrease only if we continue to help youth build a relationship of care with adults."

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