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Safety Zone Debuts at Community School East

The salt lamps give off a warm, welcoming glow. The sounds of small waves splashing onto a beach provide a calming background. When you step inside this room at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s Community School East, you instantly feel calmer.

“This space used to be called the in-school suspension room,” explained Von Pitts, Student Support Specialist.

WATCH: Safety Zone Featured on KDKA's Intersections

As of November 2023, it is the ‘Safety Zone.’ Unlike other classrooms at Community School East (CSE) in Turtle Creek, the shades are drawn and multi-colored lighting illuminates the space. The floor is lined with bean bag chairs and teddy bears.

“I saw a different vision for this space,” said Pitts, who was instrumental in developing the ‘Safety Zone.’ He presented it to the school’s principal, Ron Graham, who quickly greenlit the idea.

Said Pitts, “Mr. Graham looked at it from a perspective of identifying our kids who were severely depressed, who were refusing services and not addressing the mental health issues that they were dealing with.”

The room was formerly known as ‘The Barbershop.’ In the spirit of that space, an illuminated barber pole still spins in the corner next to the room’s only desk - for the instructor.

“‘The Barbershop’ is basically still in place because, when you go to a barbershop, you can have conversations, the heart-to-heart conversations,” said Pitts.

A key feature of the Safety Zone - aside from mood music and lighting - is the use of virtual reality (VR) technology. The school purchased two Meta Oculus VR headsets after Pitts saw firsthand how the technology could benefit his students’ well-being.

WATCH: Safety Zone on KDKA News

“My grandson was playing with his Oculus game, and I’m looking at him and envisioning, ‘How can we encompass the kids that we service with a resource that gives them the opportunity to address mental health?’”

Pitts and fellow staff members at CSE researched other ‘chill rooms’ in local schools and designed theirs from the ground-up. From the start of the 2023-2024 school year, it took about two months to put all the pieces in place.

“I listened to calming music, calming sounds - the raindrops - and had conversations with Miss Stacy (Chakos, CSE School Counselor)...we talked about different mental health processes to help our kids and better service them.”

Students use calming and mindfulness apps through the Oculus VR system to help them re-center. They work with a staff member to determine how long they can use the room and how they will manage their time and emotions. While the room has only been open a short while, Pitts said the benefits for students have been immediate.

“They’re able to cope better, they’re able to transition back to their (home school district) classes better and identify their feelings.”

Added Chakos, “It’s huge. To know what you’re feeling, why you’re triggered…there’s a process that happens here in this room, and that recognition is an important element of it.”

The ‘Safety Zone’ is part of the trauma-responsive approach to behavior management in place in the AIU’s Alternative Education Program, which serves students who are temporarily excluded from a traditional school setting. The program features Community School West in McKees Rocks and the Academic Institute at the Allegheny County Jail in addition to Community School East.

All too often, 7th to 12th grade students who are sent to the AIU’s Community Schools arrive while enduring varying degrees of trauma, which they must process as they attempt to return to their home districts. Whether trauma is taking place in their homes, in their families or in their communities, students can find it difficult to deal with the complex feelings caused by trauma.

“(CSE) taught me a lot of things, it made me feel better about myself and what I could do,” said Imare Lawrence, a Gateway School District student who was at CSE four times. “Now I know how to talk to people, talk in groups. I didn’t like talking at all, since my friend died. I didn’t like talking.”

The friend he’s referring to is Matthew Steffy-Ross, a 17-year-old who was once a student at CSE. He was shot and killed on Pittsburgh’s North Side in 2022. The ‘Safety Zone is dedicated in his honor.

We don’t know as adults, sometimes, how to manage grief and loss, detachment or separation,” said Pitts. “That’s a lot for an adult, let alone a teenager or an adolescent.”

Said Lawrence about the CSE staff: “They helped me do everything I do now. I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for them. If I was still in Gateway, I wouldn’t know where I’d be now.” Experiences like Lawrence’s were key in spurring CSE staff to develop the ‘Safety Zone,’ according to Pitts and Chakos.

Steffy-Ross’ great aunt, Bonnie McLain, was also on hand for the dedication of the ‘Safety Zone in November 2023. Known as ‘Aunt Bonnie’ around CSE for her supportive presence, she praised the school and its staff for developing this critical space.

The support is always there, and that is what has sustained me,” she said. “I am forever grateful for AIU being who they are, and the kind of people that were placed within proximity to me and this school. I don’t know how well I might have made it, had it not been for the principal, the staff, this school and the kids.”

For Pitts, the ‘Safety Zone epitomizes the difference between punitive and restorative justice.

“We utilize trauma-informed care, and we utilize it well,” he said, adding that initiatives like the Safety Zone are critical to addressing unidentified mental health issues, especially in the Black community.

“We want to break down those barriers and allow (the kids) the space to engage within themselves and to feed off of others’ abilities to cope,” said Pitts. “When things are negative for them we want to give them a positive outcome.”

The ‘Safety Zone’ is evidence of Community School East’s adherence to the AIU’s mission of serving every learner. Pitts summed it up with a simple, yet impactful statement.

“We have one agenda: the wellness of our youth.”

NOTE: This article was updated on February 14, 2024 to reflect the change of the room's name to the 'Safety Zone.'