BY KATHLEEN O'TOOLE
Jim Gibbons has traveled a long, winding road from teaching graduate engineers at Stanford to teaching juvenile murderers and thieves to stop assaulting each other and attempting suicide. Now, the former dean of Stanford's engineering school is trudging toward communities like Littleton, Colorado, hoping to help middle America find a way to solve its problems with teenage violence.
"I can't say that if those boys in Littleton had been in one of our groups, they wouldn't have done this," Gibbons says of the latest school tragedy, the killing of 12 students and a teacher presumably by two students who had also intended to bomb their suburban school. "My wife says I think tutored video instruction will solve every problem," he says with a smile. "But we've got data that says we've been able to help tough kids control their anger, and nobody else has that."
Vignettes of teenagers getting angry are videotaped by Sera Learning Technologies to use in anger management sessions for other young people. After each taped vignette is shown by a tutor, the tape is stopped so students can discuss the scene, their own hot buttons and reactions. They also role-play alternative ways to handle their anger. Role playing is key to developing confidence in one’s ability to react differently, experts say.
Gibbons is munching a stale sandwich, his lunch, at 4 p.m. on a Friday in his office at the Center for Integrated Systems, a flashy enclave of computer chip research on the Stanford campus. A Silicon Valley centerpiece, the building seems light-years away from the eruptions of death in the schools in Littleton; Paducah, Ky.; and Jonesboro, Ark. Downstairs from Gibbons' corner office, some of the nation's brightest graduate students are laboring in sophisticated labs on nanotechnology and other projects that fuel the information revolution. But in this high-tech world, there is at least one professor who remembers more than his past students who have become multimillionaires. Gibbons, 67, can tick off the names of his early teachers in the school of hard knocks -- federal prison inmates.
"The inmates thought I was as much their kid as my parents' kid," Gibbons says, between bites on the sandwich. "I'd go sliding into second base and get rear-ended -- the guy just knocks the living daylights out of me, and then he says, 'If you make it to the Majors, Jimmy, I want you to remember that tag.'"
Born in Leavenworth, Kan., where his father was a penitentiary guard, Gibbons moved to Texarkana, Texas, at age 8 and spent the next eight years in the staff housing compound of a minimum-security prison where prisoners were often his chore and play mates. His best friend among the inmates, he says, was a guy named Jimmy Abbot, a 300-pound "sweetheart of a guy" who would take him aside when trouble was brewing and say, "OK, Jimmy, here's why this is going on." "I'm not trying to excuse what he did to get there," Gibbons says, "but what you learn is, except for a turn back on the road somewhere, it could be one of us."
Gibbons' turns were stellar: He wound up a star of the academic world, elected to the national academies of science and of engineering, and relatively wealthy from a high-tech firm he started. Then a few years ago, he took his profits from the firm's sale and started a new venture, Sera Learning Technologies, a company that uses novel video-based instruction to help teenagers develop control over their emotions, so they are less likely to hurt themselves and others.
A few blocks from Gibbons' office, psychologist Albert Bandura, the David Starr Jordan Professor of Social Science, researches aggression. He studies the mechanisms that allow normally considerate people to disengage from their morals so they can kill their neighbors, whether in the Balkans or Littleton's Columbine High. His latest book is Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, and he is one of the leading theorists whose work informs Gibbons' work on violence reduction among young people.
Schools that previously offered courses aimed at reducing teenage pregnancy and drug and tobacco use are now trying to teach kids how to negotiate their conflicts or curb their anger, Bandura says. Most will probably fail because it takes time and money to help people change bad behaviors, and most schools have neither. A research literature is developing on how to prevent violence among young people, but data establishing the effectiveness of programs is largely lacking.
"We know how to change behavior. We know how to produce schools for success," he says. "What we lack are implementation models. We don't know how to get schools to adopt techniques that work."
Research indicates that programs that work are "ones with a lot of role playing. Some kid is trying to get you to smoke. What do you say and do? In good programs, people develop competency, they build their efficacy so they believe they can succeed, and then they need a lot of successes under simulated conditions so they know that when the real one comes."
"I don't disagree with Bandura," Gibbons says. "What I've brought to this is a method of implementation that has worked over 25 years with very different groups and very different subject matter."
The method is tutored video instruction, or TVI, something Gibbons and colleagues at the School of Engineering developed in 1972 to offer distance education to electrical engineers who needed to update their skills while remaining on the job. Graduate courses on campus were videotaped. A tutor at the worksite stopped the tape frequently to lead discussions of the material. Students also could play the tape as often as they wished. Over eight years of tracking results, the off-campus students, even though their academic credentials were not as good, scored higher than the campus students.
Explains Gibbons: "The skills you need to be a good student on campus are different than what they are if you can stop this lecture anytime you want to ask as many questions as you want."
Adapting this method to anger management, Gibbons hires tough kids to act out situations that begin with a tease, lead to a push and finish with drawn switchblades, all within two or three minutes.
"We stop the tape before the switchblades are drawn," he says. Then a trained facilitator, who works with 5 to 12 kids, asks them to pair up to analyze what is going on. Over 12 sessions, they learn to identify their particular hot buttons. They repeatedly act out scenes that push their body temperature and heart rate up. They try out various methods of responding when they're angry.
While initial results from Santa Clara County's Juvenile Justice Center suggest the program can help kids who are already in trouble with the law, Gibbons says kids who are not yet identified as troublemakers could benefit as well. "These problems aren't limited to kids that we can identify and isolate from the school system, as these school shooting incidents show."
Gibbons didn't set out initially to curb violence but to improve the quality of science education. Armed with his early success teaching graduate engineers long distance, he decided that tutored video instruction could help California's K-12 teachers implement a tougher state science curriculum. He persuaded Burt Richter, the director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, to help him make a video of a teaching unit on wind energy for fifth graders. They would arm elementary school teachers with experiments on tape and give them brief workshops that taught them to pause the tape so their own students could carry out experiments.
Mike Smith, the former dean of Stanford's School of Education, recommended Gibbons to the state superintendent of schools. The superintended insisted Gibbons first prove he could teach the most difficult subject to the most difficult population -- computer literacy to the children of migrant farm workers. "He said that computer literacy is the toughest subject because teachers are afraid of it, and migrant kids, because the dropout rate is so high," Gibbons says.
Gibbons accepted the challenge and turned down the presidency of a major university because he wanted to see the project through. He went to Palo Alto High, one of the nation's leading college prep schools, and borrowed its curriculum on computer literacy.
"I had to bring migrant kids to campus to tape the classes, because if I taped the Paly kids, the migrant kids would think, 'What the heck has that got to do with me?'" he explains. An added complication was the students' varied proficiency in English and their micro-dialects. "The kids in East Oakland didn't understand the kids in Hollister," Gibbons recalls. But they learned anyway, because "when the tape stops, kids can talk about it any language they want. In our juvenile hall groups, the subject is anger. Anger is anger, but it isn't the King's English they use to discuss it."
Gibbons and Richter had just finished testing their wind energy unit when the wind was knocked from their sails. State Superintendent Bill Honig was accused of putting his wife's company on the payroll and a scandal erupted.
"Everything [Honig] ever did was suspect, including us -- particularly us, because everybody knows that migrant kids can't learn, so we must have cheated," Gibbons says. "I had spent most of the money I had from selling my previous startup. I had $350,000 left when I went to juvenile hall [in San Jose] and told the director, 'I can teach your kids to use computers so they'll have some skills when they get out.'"
The response was not what he expected. "She says, 'Well, I don't doubt that you can do that, but tell me how you are going to solve the following problem: Here's a kid doing his homework, and the next kid comes up and says, "It's my turn now." And the first guy says, "Are you big enough to push me off?" Everything that can lead to a fight leads to a fight,' she said, 'so this keyboard is going to get used as a hammer.'"
Gibbons went looking for "people with their feet in the streets" to help him figure out how tutored video instruction could be used for this purpose. He recently gave up his tenured position at Stanford, cut back to 60 percent time at the university and sought corporoate support from his Silicon Valley contacts to finance the introduction of his anger management program. On the board of Cisco Systems, he easily got an audience there, but the executives wanted the juvenile justice officials to have a stake in the project, so he had to convince them to set aside money for the continuation costs should they like the results of the first year.
Gibbons hired SRI to do a formal study of the program's first trial, an attitude and skills survey that found offenders who took the class had better attitudes and more skills for avoiding violence than a control group. More impressive to some were juvenile hall statistics. Assaults on staff dropped 60 percent in the first six months and another 60 percent in the second six months. The suicide attempt rate dropped, as did the "phases," or security upgrades assigned to inmates for violating rules. The director considered it successful, Gibbons says, "because the staff felt safer and the students felt safer. Therefore, everything else they did worked better."
John Gardner, founder of Common Cause and a consulting professor at Stanford's School of Education school, considers Gibbon's success "remarkable. My training is in psychology, and I must say, I would not have thought an engineering dean would do this, but he had the imagination."
The program has spread from juvenile detention centers and alternative schools to urban middle and high schools in several states. Other companies have given charitable contributions to schools or other nonprofit agencies to start the program in their communities. The cost, Gibbons says, is down to $25 to $30 per student, but his company needs more volume to turn a profit. Potential new markets are charter schools and after-school programs.
Gibbons says his friends in education often ask him why he formed Sera Learning as a for-profit company instead of a nonprofit. His answer is that he thinks it provides the best chance for success. "The foundations will say it's not in their charter, it's not this or not that. I've got to go through 15 boards and I apply and I get ten thousand dollars from them. I don't need ten thousand dollars. I need a million. So I think, all right, I'll use every skill I've got to try to make this thing work as a for-profit."
Two venture capital firms have invested and other venture capitalists, too, he says, but as individuals rather than on behalf of their firms. Sera Learning doesn't fit the typical venture capital fund profile, he says, because "I'm not going to return 10 times anybody's money in seven years with this."
On second thought, he adds, "I might
just be crazy and something like that would happen."