SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. – Markham Woods Middle School in Lake Mary experienced a violent and brutal start to the school year in 2021.
Parents sent News 6 multiple videos of fighting in the courtyard, hallways and lunchroom, amounting to more than 25 fights just in the first semester.
Parents called the Seminole County school district for help, the school district called the sheriff’s office, and the sheriff’s office called John Girard and his team of Juvenile Intervention Officers.
“I helped develop Oviedo Pop Warner (youth football and cheer organization) for 25 years, I taught at the local high school for 18 years. Kids are sponges,” Girard said. “At Markham Woods, pizza did the trick. I turned to the six boys and said, ‘Hey, what would make you come back to this class? It’s going to be 13 weeks every Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. What can I do?’ So the last meeting we bought a few boxes of pizza and they were there. They all came. They sure did and they loved it. Gave fist bumps on their way out.”
Every week, Girard and his fellow intervention officers (who are civilians, not deputies) meet with six Markham Woods students that the school identified as high-risk for dropping out or getting kicked out.
Girard said he is the first in the U.S. to teach the kids a technique developed in Canada called SNAP Youth Justice.
“SNAP stands for Stop Now And Plan. It makes these kids who do the program learn what their hard thoughts are. Hard thoughts are negative thoughts and cool thoughts are positive,” Girard said. “So in a critical moment, you come up with a stop. A stop could be take a deep breath, walk away, talk to somebody. Step back. And you need to come up with a plan.”
Girard gave an example.
“All of a sudden, during lunch in the cafeteria, somebody comes up and knocks a football player’s lunch plate over,” Girard said. “So in the heat of the moment, the hard thought is ‘I’m going to take this kid out and hurt him and punch him.’ A cool thought has to come in: ‘If I do this I’ll get thrown off the team and kicked out of school.’”
After the shooting inside Seminole High School in January, and even before, the Juvenile Intervention Officers were there too. They’re also at Lake Mary High School.
For 13 weeks, the JIOs teach troubled students to make better snap decisions instinctively.
“The success rate is pretty good,” Girard said. “We’ve seen these kids really come up and start utilizing the SNAP program and actually getting less referrals in schools. And come up with plans. And be successful.”
Besides the SNAP programs for the high schools and middle schools, the same JIOs are also doing SNAP in elementary schools. They call it “Little SNAP.”
“We had a youth a while back (who) wasn’t going to school and was skipping classes and stuff,” Girard said. “And the reason why is his clothes didn’t fit him. And he was embarrassed. How’d we find that out? Just by sitting down and taking him to lunch.”