This young man, who has incredible potential, grew up with a very unstable home life and few resources. Very early in his elementary school years, Will came to believe that he would never work at the level of his peers. He began skipping class, and by 5th grade decided to drop out.
Will is an example of how our schools and public institutions are failing young boys and girls who are growing up in challenging circumstances.
In December, Exodus attended “New Science, New Solutions: Changing the Future for At-Risk Youth,” an event held at the American Museum of Natural History. The panel discussion included thought leaders who work in many arenas, all related to youth services. The goal was to begin a dialogue about how we, the public, can work to change the low academic achievement so common in inner city youth.
The “school-to-prison pipeline” a phrase coined by the ACLU, refers to policies that tend to funnel schoolchildren, typically those from disadvantaged backgrounds, out of classrooms and into the justice system. Panelist Ana Bermúdez, Commissioner of the Department of Probation, doesn’t like referring to these teens as being “at-risk,” but instead prefers the phrase “at-promise,” believing that they are at an age where interventions can still be effective.
The panelists agreed that we cannot allow prioritization of incarceration over education at an institutional level. Children from homes challenged by poverty, abuse or neglect often have learning disabilities. Minorities and low income students are treated with punitive rather than restorative practices due to inherent bias. Too often, neglected youth like Will are isolated, punished, or pushed out of school and into a world that they are not ready for, an expensive mistake.
Research shows there is tremendous benefit to extra educational support, and counseling and mentoring programs.
Panelist Dr. Frances A. Champagne shared how she and her research team at Columbia University are doing epigenetic research on the impact that early life experiences have on behavior. They are exploring how neural mechanisms triggered by trauma and anxiety can impair development. Thankfully, they are finding that the effects of early life adversity might be reversible.
Dorothy E. Roberts, a professor of law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said she is encouraged by the research, but expressed concern that new methods won’t be effective unless we also address institutional discrimination and bias, especially in our public institutions.
At the close of the discussion, Fagan Harris, Executive Director of Baltimore Corps., challenged the audience by saying that the problem can’t be solved by advocacy alone. Instead, he encouraged everyone to consider becoming a mentor. This, according to Harris, could be an effective way to dismantle the school to prison pipeline for good.
At Operation Exodus, we’ve seen first hand the difference mentoring can make. Students that have been with us long-term, have found stability, healing and an ability to achieve. The intervention process can be slow. It may be years before the positive influence takes root and bears fruit. However, we believe that investing in our youth now is far better than paying for them to move through the justice system later.
Currently, Will is being considered for a rehab program, with the possibility of a halfway house residence. Please pray that he gets released and admitted to this program, otherwise he faces possible deportation to the Dominican Republic, a place that he has never considered home. We continue to believe that God has a plan for him, and we know he has much to contribute.
Operation Exodus offers faith-based mentoring for students ages kindergarten through college, to help low-income Latino youth succeed in school and in life.