Opening Doors Alternative School in Saskatoon

(supplement to Preventing Crime Through Social Development No. 8, April 2004)

Continued from published bulletin. Note all student names were changed to protect their privacy.

Kathleen is perhaps one of the most dramatic examples of the positive effects that a nurturing environment – and one person who cares – can make. At 16, she came to Opening Doors with a Grade 9 education and psychiatric diagnoses of bipolar disorder and panic attacks, which kept her on a battery of medications. "I had pills to wake me up and pills to go to sleep," she says.

Patti went with her to medical appointments, untangled the web of different diagnoses, and got her prescriptions reduced down to one. Kathleen has now been at the school for four years, and she has almost completed her final year of high school.

Another striking success story is Steve, who is still on probation for some earlier brushes with the law. Chronically truant at other high schools, he is now working consistently to complete Grade 11. He studies part-time at Opening Doors and part-time at a regular local high school, since the aim of this small alternative school is to reintegrate the students back into regular schools whenever possible. Steve expresses lively enthusiasm about his strongest subject, history. "It's great reading about all the different ways things were in the past. I want to do something with that one day," he says.

Although many of these teenagers were involved in drug trafficking and other petty crimes, including gang crimes, they now see involvement in that world as a weakness, a substitute for the support they really need.

"People think their gang is their family," says Alana. Speaking about a fellow student who fell back into the gang lifestyle, she says "we tried to tell him it was stupid, it wasn't worth it, not for anyone – but his girlfriend was very involved, and he said he loved her…"

Alana says that jail can act as a substitute for home "Jail is just a free home. It's easier for them there – at least they have something to eat, somewhere to sleep – and their families are in there." She wishes that jail could give youth the discipline and caring they need to adopt a more constructive path. Jails should provide an environment where youth "have to push themselves mentally and physically" – and they should have people like Patti to help them do it, she says.