Bob Liddell first told his Forest Park Middle School students that he was retiring as the school’s behavior interventionist at the Black History Month Celebration back on Feb. 17, an event he had put together. His announcement was met by an audible groan.
Two seventh-graders explained the reaction.
“He’s a caring man,” said Jalen Cruz, “and I care about him. He’s half of the reason I come to school sometimes.”
“He actually listens and doesn’t take sides,” added Alissa Williams. “I don’t want to see him leave because he’s very supportive.”
When Jalen and Alissa’s parents were in seventh grade, being sent to the principal’s office was something to be dreaded because it usually meant some kind of punishment at school and more of the same at home.
Liddell changed all of that when he came to Forest Park School District 91 more than a decade ago.
“The charge I received from Dr. Tinder who was the superintendent at the time and from Dr. Cavallo who followed him,” he said, “was not to be a disciplinarian but to get to know the kids and be someone they can turn to.”
The way he went about responding to behavior issues in the students was to address three of the root causes of their acting out: anger management, conflict management, and emotional control, with 90 percent of his time being spent on conflict resolution.
This, of course, is very different from zero tolerance and tough-on-crime approaches. When he began his work 11 years ago, and with every class of sixth-graders entering the middle school in the fall, his first task has been to earn their trust. He does this by chatting with the kids during lunchtime in the cafeteria and being very present in the halls when students are changing classes.
“I let them know who I am and why I am here,” he said. “I treat them with respect, never like little kids. I show them they can talk to me about anything. Once I show them that I’m going to treat them fairly — whether they are Hispanic, African American, white or Asian — they start coming to me.”
Trinity Sutton, another seventh-grader, smiled and said, “When teachers or students get on my nerves, he really listens to what I say. I can open up to him. He’s always been there when I needed him.”
One of the first things Liddell did at D91 was to resurrect what the school calls the Ambassador Program in which every new kid coming into the school is put into small groups with other new students where they learn school policies, who they can go to when they have a problem, and resources like the after-school homework club.
Liddell also instituted the PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies) program, which he praises as “one of the best programs I’ve seen come down the pike.” It’s basically behavior modification with an emphasis on positive reinforcement in the form of celebrations rather than punishment.
“Say we had 115 detentions last year,” he posited, “and we set the goal of having a 20 percent reduction. We let the kids know what our goal is and if we meet the goal we have a celebration like eating outside and ice cream. We plan one celebration for each quarter of the school year.”
This approach of reinforcing positive behavior, he said, works with 80 percent of the students. Another 15 percent need extra attention in the form of mentors and teachers they check in with in the morning and again after school. Finally, he said, about 5 percent of the kids, the ones whose unacceptable behavior is recurring, need more intensive work in the form of what he calls a “wrap-around.” He assembles a team of parents, a pastor, maybe a probation officer and school staff members who all focus on the individual.
“The kid feels like everyone is here for him/her,” he said, “and that’s good.”
In answer to the skeptics’ “But does it work?” Liddell responds, “When I first came here, we averaged 25-35 fights a year. I’m proud to say that on May 2, eight months into this year, we’ve had two. I can’t take all the credit for that, but what I do know is that having someone in this position has made a big difference.”
D91 Superintendent Lou Cavallo disagrees with his modesty.
“It is not simply having someone in that role but the person, Mr. Liddell, filling that role that has made the greatest impact. Mr. Liddell has forged bonds with students and families in a way that only he could. He understands the issues and problems that adolescents face and is able to help them navigate their issues. Mr. Liddell is one of a kind and we will greatly miss him.”
Cavallo added that D91 will certainly continue funding the position after Liddell finishes his work on June 1.
Middle School Principal Joe Pisano said of Liddell, “He is somebody that everyone, students and teachers, have felt comfortable talking to about any issue because of the unique and positive relationships he has been able to build with them. He has been an enormous part of the culture change that Forest Park Middle School has undergone since he arrived 11 years ago.”
Liddell said he brought two advantages to the job. One is that he is African American, and in a school that is majority African American, having a person to talk to who looks like many of the students is an asset. But he quickly tempered that statement by saying race problems are mainly issues for adults; kids don’t care what color you are if you care about them.
He also considers his age to be an advantage. The middle-school kids sometimes call him “grandpa,” and he considers that a compliment. For a lot of these kids, he said, grandparents are an important source of affirmation and support.
But the most important testimonies come from the students themselves. Oxavionne Bryant said, “He’s like a mentor to me because he got me through a lot of deep stuff a couple months ago, and he sort of made me into the person I am today. I’m going to be sad to see him leave.”
Jalen Cruz said simply, “He’s like a family member to me. He taught me the way I am right now.”
What may sound strange at first is that Bob Liddell’s main preparation for his work at the middle school, in addition to college courses in education, was 25 years working for a liquor company name Hiram Walker. At that company he rose to the position of a corporate officer in sales and marketing and diversity officer for the company. As such, his job was to show liquor store owners that it was to their financial advantage to hire minorities, not just as stock boys and janitors, but to fill managerial positions.
After he retires from D91, he said he wants to be a life coach.
“Because I have had so many experiences,” he mused, “I want to coach people and help them become better.”