Above: Trainer Ed Thomas models a self-defense pose to a group of teachers during New Employee Orientation at the OYA Training Academy.
“It’s kind of like choose your own adventure.”
That’s how trainer Caleb Bronemann describes Reality Based Training (RBT), set up by Oregon Youth Authority’s Training Academy for front-line facility employees.
Instead of just telling employees how to work with youth and then sending them back to their facilities with no practice, the Training Academy gives staff a chance to try new skills in a safe space.
Sometimes that means trying one thing, watching it fail, talking with instructors about how to do it better, and then attempting another path.
Practice is especially useful for high-stress situations with escalating emotions, where quick and clear decision-making is critical.
At first glance, RBT might seem like it’s preparing staff for an intimidating, physical, correctional environment.
Participants meet in a mat room at the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training in Salem. They wear protective vests and helmets as they encounter training academy staff who are impersonating facility youth.
However, as they act out each scenario, employees are encouraged to avoid physical contact with youth as long as possible. Their first response should always be to follow the agency’s Positive Human Development model that is built on safety and security and supportive relationships.
“It’s really about being proactive. What choices can we make before this gets physical?” Bronemann said.
The trainers encourage staff to ask themselves, “Where are we in relation to the kids? How do we distract them? Ultimately, if things do go bad, did we put ourselves in a position to safely manage the rest of the youth in the environment? If we did have to go physical, was it in a way where we can still build the relationship afterward?”
RBT is part of OYA’s two-week Advanced Academy, which is required for facility direct care staff about six months after they complete New Employee Orientation (NEO), also at the Training Academy.
“Some staff have never worked in juvenile corrections,” Bronemann said. “So (in NEO), when you use terminology or talk about certain events, it’s completely foreign to them. When they come back (for RBT), they can tie it to something they’ve seen or participated in already.”
Staff learn how to make timely and levelheaded decisions in scenarios, such as when youth are verbally attacking each other or when a mentally distressed youth tries to harm himself.
They learn to try non-physical things first. But sometimes these ideas don’t work and physical intervention becomes necessary to keep all the youth safe.
Trainer Christy Hess said that when Training Academy staff impersonate youth, they adjust how they act depending on the staff person’s actions. This helps make the situation feel realistic.
“We give them an opportunity to learn and develop,” she said. “Then we’ll roll the scenario again and hopefully they’ll make an adjustment or improvement to what they did the first time.”
Daniel Elliott is a group life coordinator (GLC) at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, which means he works daily with youth to coordinate their activities and support them in their living units.
He said the RBT this past summer was much more thorough than 15 years ago, when he first worked for OYA.
“I love it,” he said. “It gives you real life-based scenarios you think you might be prepared for, but when you’re actually doing it, it’s a whole different realm. You learn things about yourself, new avenues and different ideas that would help in a situation. … 110 percent it will help us be better at our job in the facility.”
While the RBT is only required for relatively new employees, the training is also effective for employees who have been with the agency a long time, Hess said.
“It’s a good reality check,” she said. “I think I (handle situations) really well and I know what I’d do (in that scenario). And then it really happens, and it’s different than I thought.”
Other Academy Programs
It’s easy for the rest of the agency to see the eight-person Training Academy team as supporting mostly newer employees. But the Training Academy also provides:
- physical abilities testing, a pre-employment test for GLCs that screens for hearing, sight, and light physical activity, like jogging 100 yards;
- collaborative trainings for other agencies, vendors, and partners;
- New Directions, a training for OYA employees to become certified alcohol and drug counselors;
- refresher trainings for facility employees, when requested;
- curriculum development and lesson plans for departments within the agency; and
- audiovisual trainings and orientations, including coursework on OYA practices and policy updates through iLearn, an online statewide learning management system.
Because the Training Academy is located at DPSST, OYA employees can rent meeting rooms there for free.
Another benefit to the location? The Training Academy has connections with other agencies like Oregon Department of Corrections, Oregon State Police, and DPSST trainers.
“We can collaborate with other state agencies on training initiatives,” Dallas Tully, Training Academy interim director, said. “One example was getting one of our former OYA trainers certified to teach defensive driving techniques to OYA staff. We are looking at collaborating with DPSST to get more staff certified to teach this class.”
The Training Academy also has access to a computer lab and a media room, complete with microphone and lights. OYA staff have used this equipment to produce multimedia projects such as foster parent orientation videos.
A Resource for All OYA Employees
Training Academy staff said they hope more managers will see them as a resource for all employees, not just the new ones.
“Training is so foundational to the work that we do as an agency, and we want to make sure all (employees) feel supported in the work they do,” Tully said. “We can be an advocate if (there’s) a training need at a facility. We’re here far beyond just Advanced Academy and NEO.”
A visit to the academy can be a re-energizing experience and a reminder of why staff got into this line of work in the first place, said one GLC during a speech at an Advanced Academy graduation ceremony in June.
“I came into this not in the best mind space — I’ve been going through a lot of challenging things at work,” she admitted. “By the end, I’m stoked to go back to work, especially because of the positive experience I had here. …
“It’s really cool to be in a space where top-down support is shown. It gives me so much hope for continuing this experience.”