WALNUT CREEK -- One teacher makes a radical difference.

That message, delivered by keynote speaker Dr. Victor Rios at Mount Diablo Peace & Justice Center's third annual Creating a Peaceful School Conference in Walnut Creek, was good news.

And to the capacity crowd of 180 -- most of them educators or school administrative staff -- filling the Seven Hills School auditorium in early February, it was a ringing validation.

The all-day conference devoted 26 breakout sessions to building purposefully peaceful, multicultural classrooms. But Rios' one-hour autobiographical opening bristled with guns, violence, gang warfare and desperation.

"I'm supposed to be locked up in a 6-by-9-foot cell," the UC Santa Barbara sociology professor said. "I'm supposed to be on Oakland streets, strung out on drugs or dead with my homeboys."

Instead, he and his wife Rebecca are homeowners and the parents of three children. They hold advanced academic degrees and have an income Rios said, proudly, puts them firmly in the middle class.

He said he "graduated" from Oakland's street-delivered, criminal lessons and from a single-parent home. It took a bullet, shot into the head of Smiley -- the 15-year-old boy Rios still refers to as "my homey" -- to awaken him from his destined-for-crime stupor.

And it took a teacher, Miss Flora Russ, to redirect his path. Many students called her crazy, Rios said, but he turned to her for answers.

"She knew not one word of Spanish," Rios said, describing the Sunday afternoon Miss Russ showed up at his low-income, "ghetto" apartment. Rios' mother didn't speak English, having immigrated illegally from Mexico when Rios was 3 years old.

"There's a human connection that transcends language," he said. "After that, a 'triangle of accountability' led me forward -- my mom, my teacher and mentor programs."

Rios finished high school and was accepted on academic probation at CSU Hayward. Today, with a Ph.D. from Cal-Berkeley, he's the author of an autobiography written for a young adult audience and of "Punished," an authoritative book resulting from his research and findings relating to the hypercriminalization of black and Latino boys.

Citing a 2006 Wooley and Grogan-Kaylor study, Rios said "support from authority figures is the strongest predictor of school-appropriate behavior," and that teachers and school counselors and administrators can work with families to create a network of care. A peaceful classroom comes from understanding students' social situations, demonstrating genuine interest and offering unconditional nurturing, he suggested.

His book's 10 years of research, including information gathered from hundreds of interviews with teachers, has led him to believe emotional support is the key to student motivation and transformation.

"I'm not asking you to drop rules or to add hours," he said, anticipating a possible wave of "we're overworked and underpaid" objections. "You can still kick a kid out of the classroom, but do it with a promise that, when they're ready, you'll be ready for them to return."

Conference attendees asked Rios for specific tools and protocols for achieving a peaceful, productive classroom environment. He said administrators can set a lasting standard.

"If you institute the (right) culture, a change of personnel won't disturb the climate." Instead of relying on one teacher who "always gets the trouble kids," he said shared strategies makes everyone accountable.

At the Q&A session that followed, attendees provided as many answers as did Rios, who encouraged the communal exchange. Berkeley author Summer Brenner's book, "Richmond Tales," has been provided to all 4th-grade students in the Richmond School District and was recommended by a local teacher, along with The Bluford Series and Rios' own "Street Life."

Margli Auclair, the peace and justice center's executive director, said the Peaceful Schools event has grown each year.

"The turnout is an indication of educators in this area and how dedicated they are to their students," she said.

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