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For many Dallas teens, reacting without thinking can be deadly. A new effort within DISD can help.

This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas.

Aim of BAM and WOW may sound naive, but Mayor’s Task Force on Safe Communities focused on data-driven results in recommending them.

Becoming a Man
Travis Mason, Becoming a Man (BAM) youth specialist at Pinkston High School, talks with participating students as they opened a recent Wednesday session with a check-in focused on “what’s on your mind and what’s on your heart.”(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

By Sharon Grigsby

We all occasionally fly off the handle without thinking first. Thankfully, the consequences are usually trivial.

But sometimes those consequences are fatal. That’s the hard reality behind, for instance, evidence-based training that teaches police officers to de-escalate volatile situations before resorting to lethal force.

Likewise, it’s the same strategy underpinning a new mayor’s task force initiative for teenagers in some of Dallas’ most violent neighborhoods.

It might sound naive but it’s not: Finding simple ways to cool tempers and slow down emotions can save lives. Too many anguished voices have testified in too many courtrooms, “It just happened so fast” or “I wish I could do it over.”

Now two programs in six DISD high schools — Becoming a Man (BAM) and Working on Womanhood (WOW) — help buy teens that critical time to make a better decision in a bad moment.

Thanks to the students who invited me into two BAM and WOW circles, I can share how it works.

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson’s Task Force on Safe Communities recommended BAM and WOW as one of four strategies shown to reduce shootings in other cities. Two randomized control trials in Chicago indicate that BAM has cut violent-crime incidents among participating teens by 50%.

“BAM and other programs like it benefit all kids, regardless of circumstance, to pause before allowing a misunderstanding to become an altercation,” task force co-chair Alan Cohen told me.

“For kids growing up in parts of the city where the rate of violence is 30 or 40 times higher than the neighborhood where I grew up, a simple altercation can quickly turn into a tragedy,” he said.

The success of BAM, created with WOW by the Chicago-based Youth Guidance nonprofit, led former President Obama to make it the cornerstone of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative. Boston, Kansas City and Los Angeles are among the cities nationwide that have introduced it into their schools.

High School teens in a Working on Womanhood
South Oak Cliff High School teens in a Working on Womanhood (WOW) circle matched definitions with words during a session on emotional triggers and how to handle them.(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

In Dallas ISD, the initiative serves 700 students at Carter, North Dallas, Pinkston, Samuell, Skyline and South Oak Cliff high schools. The curriculum involves restorative small-group circles as well as one-on-one sessions with youth specialists.

What may look to an outsider like games and rowdy fun are exercises proven to grow emotional intelligence and the teens’ understanding of themselves and others.

BAM focuses on impulse control, emotional self-regulation, social cues and personal responsibility and integrity. WOW emphasizes coping with trauma. Confidentiality and accountability are among the groups’ top priorities.

Travis Mason, Pinkston’s BAM youth specialist, opened the Wednesday circle I sat in on with a “what’s on your mind and what’s on your heart” check-in.

Being able to acknowledge that they feel lost or angry or confused — or don’t even know how they feel — is a first-time experience for many of these young men.

Travis and Michael Anderson, Dallas’ BAM senior curriculum specialist, next set the day’s mission — to successfully complete a “trust walk.”

One of the teens volunteered to lead, another to be the tail. Our assignment was to walk in a perfectly straight line for 10 minutes throughout the school without speaking a word or communicating with anyone.

Travis, Michael and more than a few students tried their best to distract us and trick walkers into thinking it was OK to talk. Moments before time was up, one teen participant broke the silence.

Becoming a Man
Becoming a Man (BAM) youth specialist Travis Mason, left, and Michael Anderson, Dallas’ BAM senior curriculum specialist, at doorway, go over instructions with participants before a 10-minute trust walk began at Pinkston High School.(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

First he tried to blame Travis for his blunder, but he eventually took full responsibility. Others in the circle followed up with their own stories about times when they too didn’t want to own their actions.

Travis ended with this challenge: Before you go to bed tonight, look at yourself in the mirror: “How did you show up for yourself today and how did you show accountability with others?”

BAM provides young men safety both within its circle and in the journey to manhood — a road often chaotic, burdened by trauma and loud with a lot of “you shoulds” and “you can’ts.”

The two teens whom I interviewed after the session ended, both of whom asked me to use their nicknames, credited Travis with helping them take big steps toward change.

“Here you can speak up about what’s hurting you and say what you can’t say anywhere else,” Pinkston junior The Big Chunk told me.

He said high school can be tough because of the bad decisions people around him make. “People know better, but they get carried away in the moment. … The people you hang around with, you become that person.”

Junior, a Pinkston senior, said, “some people have good thoughts and some of them don’t. BAM could really help a lot of people with integrity.”

Both teens listed many more ways BAM has changed them: To become open to different opinions. To better understand the drive and motivation of their peers. To begin to become leaders themselves as they get over their fear of messing up in front of others.

“It’s been so much of a help to see stuff, especially when I’m away from school,” Junior said. “I feel like I’m more mature.”

Sabrina Kinslow
Dallas Youth Guidance executive director Sabrina Kinslow at Pinkston High School.(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

Youth Guidance Dallas executive director Sabrina Kinslow told me that BAM and WOW “uncover young people’s hope for their futures and arm them with the confidence and tools to overcome the challenges of today and make positive decisions for their future.”

The mayor’s task force pointed to research that shows in some tough neighborhoods, the only way to avoid the reputation of being an easy victim is to fight. As documented by Yale sociologist Eli Anderson for his book Code of the Street, fighting becomes an automatic response to real or perceived provocations.

While DISD has made social-emotional learning a priority in recent years, the task force recommended that for students at high risk of finding themselves in violent surroundings, an even deeper investment was needed.

The district, which covers the task force’s estimated annual BAM-WOW cost of $348,000 per campus, will add the programs at three more schools next fall. Participating schools were chosen based on violent-crime data in the surrounding neighborhoods.

The WOW circle I participated in at South Oak Cliff High School had just begun work on emotional triggers with youth specialist LaToya Davis.

LaToya talked about the two choices we all have — to lead our emotions or allow our emotions to lead us. After several group exercises illustrating the intersection of thoughts, emotions and behaviors, two participants acted out one of the scenarios the teens had created.

Working on Womanhood
Working on Womanhood (WOW) youth specialist LaToya Davis writes on a white board while leading teen participants in a discussion at South Oak Cliff High School.(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

The role-playing involved one of the two slamming into the other, seemingly with malice, as their paths crossed. Both responded with a torrent of angry words and more pushing to illustrate a fast-escalating situation.

Members of the circle assessed what they had seen and called out ways to respond more skillfully — to take some deep breaths, to count to 10, or to walk away and talk later with a trusted adult such as LaToya.

After the circle time ended, LaToya said these seniors, who hardly knew one another until WOW began in November, have allowed themselves to be open, accountable and vulnerable about their fears and their mistakes.

Students Rayven and Shanirya told me that being a teenager is more difficult than the rest of us imagine.They both also talked about the young people they know who have died by suicide.

“That rate is rising,” Rayven said. “A lot of kids feel like they don’t have anyone to talk to and unfortunately nowadays that doesn’t end too well.”

Shanirya told me she signed up for WOW because “I’m about to graduate and go into real life and I know there are things that I could find out that would help me.”

She described herself as often trying to help others when she herself isn’t OK. “Understanding and learning more self-love is a difference I’m seeing,” she said.

Rayven said she decided to participate because “I’m a really emotional person and I usually respond with my emotions. …. I’m still emotional but I don’t react based just on that. It’s getting better.”

“I take a breath and slow down.”

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