By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications

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Mart Superintendent Antonio Houston, Executive Director Shandra Carter
and Jason Tweedle.

Jason Tweedle found his calling when he signed up to work as a Juvenile Correctional Officer at the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility 24 years ago, just two months after the campus opened as a secure facility for youth.

He’s now the longest serving employee who's worked continuously at the facility at Mart, east of Waco, and two-plus decades in he continues to love his job, though his role has evolved recently.

Tweedle worked for the first 18 years of his career as a JCO, a job that requires mental toughness, patience and a heart for kids who present challenges and can reflexively provoke others or protectively reject outreach. Some kids could be especially prickly when they’d landed in the Regulation Safety Unit, where Tweedle worked helping redirect youth who were having behavioral issues. For some, this might have been a roller coaster. But Tweedle was clam happy there.

“A lot of our kids don’t have positive role models, much less positive male role models and I always felt like I could build connections with them in an appropriate way, exerting positive influence,” he said.

Others noticed Tweedle’s steady and compassionate touch with the youth, and he was promoted into new positions, but in some of those he missed working one-on-one with the kids.

Last year the stars aligned and Tweedle became the perfect pick for a position at TJJD that takes advantage of his experience and effectiveness in working with young people. He’s the agency’s Facility Texas Model 2.0 Implementation Leader.

In this new role, he will help staff members put into practice ways of working with youth using the skills and methods they are learning that use Dialectical Behavioral Therapy techniques.

This task keeps him in touch with the colleagues he enjoys and still close with the young people at Mart. It’s a natural fit for the preternaturally calm Tweedle, who can be playful or serious with the youths as the situation demands, and never comes across like an overbearing overseer.

"I've never seen someone connect with youth quite like Jason Tweedle does at Mart. His approach not only to Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT); but his approach to the wellbeing of all our youth is nothing short of amazing,” said Supt. Antonio Houston. “He has an innate ability to engage with young people, guiding them through the complexities of their emotions with empathy and understanding. Jason's dedication to helping these youth navigate their challenges using DBT techniques is truly inspiring.”

Therapists use Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) to help people learn to cope with strong emotions by teaching skills they can employ, such as mindfulness, to better tolerate distress, regulate their emotions and accept their circumstances. It was developed for women with suicidal and self-harm behaviors, in the late 1970s through the 1980s, and has been successfully used in juvenile correctional settings. It’s the new component of the “Texas Model” at TJJD, which is an umbrella of best practices that help staff and youth interact safely and productively. (Texas Model 2.0 incorporates DBT.)

Staff are learning DBT so they can be more effective in their jobs and help youth manage their day-to-day issues. JCO staff are not counselors, but they spend every workday with TJJD youths in their care, serving as mentors and guides and, when needed, disciplinary figures. The DBT skills program gives them scientifically tested tools to help them make the most of their daily interactions with the youths.

DBT can engineer a paradigm shift in corrections. It can raise the level of safety at a facility because staff members are better equipped to diffuse stressful or dangerous situations. This improves the overall culture of the correctional environment, enabling more effective rehabilitation.

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Tweedle shares a laugh with a youth in a dorm at the Mart campus.

Youth who’ve learned to better regulate their emotions and have skills to handle moments that challenge them are freed to focus on their studies in the classroom and make progress in treatment programs.

Many staff members across TJJD are taking DBT classes conducted by Dr. Henry Schmidt, director of program accountability and a DBT expert. Tweedle’s role is to facilitate DBT practices where the classroom meets real life, at the Mart campus, which is the agency’s first facility undergoing a full DBT-led transformation.

The campus, which has initiated some other changes aimed at improving campus culture, is already seeing some success with a decline in some disciplinary events. The number of incidents requiring the use of restraints, for example, has declined by about one third over the last six months.

Installing DBT and changing the culture at the Mart campus is a big undertaking and a work in progress. But it’s already flowed over into Tweedle’s personal life. He and his wife are raising a 5-year-old great niece, and he’s applying what he’s learned in DBT trainings at home. He reports that his young charge has already absorbed the DBT concept of “acceptance,” translating it to “You get what you get, and you don’t pitch a fit.”

Tweedle smiles as he reflects on this, walking across the Mart campus. On this breezy February afternoon, he’s continually stopped by staff and youth who pass on the sidewalk. “How’re doing?” “I’ve got to talk to you later.” “OK, I’ll see you after this.”

That morning he’d attended the TJJD board meeting where Executive Director Shandra Carter recognized him for his dedication, his 24 years of service, and the important new role he’s assumed.

Stopping in his small office, he goes quiet as he thinks how to sum up what the recognition means to him.

“If you truly believe and have a passion for what you’re doing, you don’t need recognition for hard work,” he muses. “Whatever it is that you’ve been called to do, it has to be ingrained into the fibers of your being to the point you couldn’t do anything else.”