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Indy peace leaders offer a new approach to changing school culture

Dairius Banks, center, receives a proclamation from the Indiana House of Representatives for his achievement Friday, April 12, 2024. A group of 13 Arsenal Tech High School students participated in a graduation ceremony after completing a program to become peace leaders and mentors. Credit: Doug McSchooler for Mirror Indy

(MIRROR INDY) — Dairius Banks wasn’t in Indy Peace Leaders when it first started this year but, after he kept showing up, the program’s leader let him stay.

The Arsenal Tech senior had followed a friend to the group which had been meeting regularly at their school to talk about what it means to be a leader. Banks said he’d never been a part of a group like it, but once he joined, he just started talking.

“It’s like a big therapy session,” Banks said. “We all had somebody to talk to.”

Banks is one of 14 young Black men at Tech who graduated Friday, April 12, from the school’s first cohort of Indy Peace Leaders. It’s a group Brandon Randall, of the local consulting group Tru Colors Indy, has led at Tech since late September. In it, he teaches lessons on how to appropriately deal with life’s challenges and become a leader for others as they’re faced with similar struggles.

Branden Randall, Peace Leaders program facilitator and emcee of the event, speaks to students Friday, April 12, 2024. A group of 13 Arsenal Tech High School students participated in a graduation ceremony after completing a program to become peace leaders and mentors. Credit: Doug McSchooler for Mirror Indy

The program’s launch comes amid the backdrop of an already violent spring in Indianapolis. Seven young people between 12 and 17 years old were injured in a downtown shooting in March, prompting police to announce their enforcement of a state curfew for kids. And Tech has lost several of its own students to gun violence, Randall said. 

A chair sat empty at the Indy Peace Leaders’ graduation celebration last week. One of the 14 young men set to graduate was recovering in the hospital after being injured in a shooting, Randall said — a visceral reminder of something Arsenal Tech Principal JR Shelt told the Indy Peace Leaders he remembered hearing when he was a young Black student: “One in four of us won’t make it to see 25 years old.”

“That’s always stuck with me,” Shelt told the graduates, explaining how it drives his purpose today. “When you’re my age, you’ll do the same thing. If someone changes your life or gives you an opportunity or gives you a different way of thinking, you’ll pass that on to the next generation.”

[An Arsenal Tech mentor was killed just days before he would have received a mentorship award.]

Building up new leaders

Dountonia Batts, associate director of the Peace Learning Center, addresses the group. Credit: Doug McSchooler for Mirror Indy

Indy Peace Leaders grew out of an Indianapolis Urban League grant to the Peace Learning Center, a local nonprofit specializing in peace education, which contracted Randall to work with the teens. Students selected to participate in the program were paid up to $1,400 for their attendance plus bonuses for extra steps such as participating in a service project and a creative writing contest, Randall said.

The teens were able to use the stipends however they wished, Randall said. Some have jobs and cars and used the money to help pay bills or meet other needs outside of school. Though Dountonia Batts, associate director of the Peace Learning Center, said that’s not why the teens kept coming back each week.

“Not one person said that money was the motivation,” Batts said during the group’s graduation. “They mentioned people.”

Most teens in this year’s group were referred to the program by Tech staff. As part of a student body of more than 2,500, some teens in the group didn’t know each other at the start of the year. Others did, but didn’t necessarily get along. Randall said he worked hard to make sure the students, when they teamed up, worked with other students outside of their established friend groups.

Branden Randall, program facilitator, speaks to students. Credit: Doug McSchooler for Mirror Indy

The cohort met twice a week during school for about an hour at a time, taking in lessons about relationship building, mental health, family structure and conflict resolution. Randall challenged the young men to think about power structures, peer influence and how their actions could set an example for others around them.

He encouraged conversation and assigned the group homework occasionally. At the end of the school year, Randall said he plans to compare the students’ grades and attendance to reports from the middle of the school year. Although, for Randall, improving grades is a secondary goal.

“It is really important for people to understand the narrative of what youth leadership looks like,” Randall told Mirror Indy. “A lot of times, people expect that you have to have a 4.0, you have to be applying to colleges. These kids are very much leaders and while some of them want to go to college, not all of them do and that’s fine. They’re still finding joy and happiness in the world and they’re committing to making a positive difference.”

Keeping that in mind, Randall introduced the teens to different career paths. This month, he invited eight people from different industries to network with the group in a small, end-of-year career expo. He also arranged a service project where about half the group assembled hygiene and snack bags for 50 people in the city experiencing housing insecurity.

Jonathan Brewer expresses what he gained from his experience. Credit: Doug McSchooler for Mirror Indy

Jonathan Brewer said the activities taught him how to make plans and take accountability for his actions. The Tech senior studied welding in high school and now hopes to continue that in trade school. He’s also considering colleges where he can continue his participation in athletics.

“There’s not a lot of people that’s gonna tell you the right way of how to do things,” Brewer said. “Now, I try to look at the right company to surround myself with that’ll help me later on in the future.”

Relationships to continue

Randall said he focused from the beginning on building relationships and trust with the teens in the program. Randall, who is white, said he especially wanted to break their initial impressions that he was just another white man trying to tell them how to change their lives.

Banks said Randall quickly distinguished himself as someone who was there to stay by “blowing up” the teens’ phones and providing them rides when they needed it. He’s also helping some of the teens set up their first bank accounts and has connected them to potential job opportunities.

Several of the teens said their favorite parts of the program were the conversations Randall encouraged, creating a space where the group felt comfortable to share what was on their minds and hold each other accountable when they needed it. At graduation last week, the Indy Peace Leaders laughed together about the time they raided Coach Jeffery Cottrell’s snack supply and pledged to keep the cohort’s group text alive in the days and weeks to come.

[Mental health support among teens is progressing, but support is still needed.]

Most students in the first cohort are juniors and seniors. Randall said he hopes the graduates will stay involved as mentors to future Indy Peace Leader participants. He also hopes to bring the program to Harshman Middle School and said there’s been talks of launching a young women’s cohort and a group that caters to Latino students.

Randall has already tapped Banks to participate in another leadership program. The Tech senior said he especially liked how Indy Peace Leaders put the teens in front of community leaders who asked the teens directly what they think young people need today.

Banks, the Arsenal Tech senior, said the support he found through Indy Peace Leaders was the change of pace he needed after previously struggling and being expelled from another school. He called the new friends he’s made in the group a brotherhood.

He told Mirror Indy he thinks the community needs more programs such as Indy Peace Leaders to help teens make sense of the conflict they see around them. At the very least, he said, teens need to feel seen and trusted.

“There’s a lot of hurt,” Banks said. “We need more people to listen.”

Mirror Indy reporter Carley Lanich covers early childhood and K-12 education. Contact her at or follow her on X @carleylanich.