Witnessing violence or dangerous behavior can have a profound impact on a very young child. Disruptive behavior and acting out in these cases can be easily misunderstood. While young children from all types of backgrounds are capable of testing boundaries, acting up in class, or showing with aggression toward others, these behaviors are common in children that have been exposed to violence, food insecurity or other traumas.
In schools, consequences for this behavior can include removal from class, suspension, or in extreme cases expulsion. This leads to feelings of isolation, shame, and lowered self esteem. Suddenly, we are faced with a downward spiral that is hard to correct.
This downward spiral is what feeds the school-to-prison pipeline that has become a rising concern of national importance.
In 2013, over one third of Latinos in public schools were living at or below the threshold of poverty (Gaitan 2013). These students typically begin their school journey at least one level behind in English literacy. If they are not reading at grade level by the end of the third grade, they are four times less likely to graduate high school on time. At Northwestern University, researchers also discovered that high school dropouts are 63 times more likely to be incarcerated than a college gradate. And there you have it, the answer to why New York City prisons are full of Latino youth, some as young as 16.
Early intervention that includes mentoring from a caring, positive adult role model is the oldest “new” tool available to end this horrific problem. Study after study shows that youth with mentors perform better in the classroom, have fewer unexcused absences and are less likely to drop out.
Mentoring works, but not without your help.
Programs like the Operation Exodus mentoring initiative can divert troubled students, and put them on a path to high school graduation, rather than incarceration. Volunteering at a community organization is a great way to hang out, have fun, and get to know if mentoring might be right for you.
Students who face issues like gang violence, dysfunctional families, poverty or hunger, deserve a fighting chance at a quality education. But, that certainly won’t happen if they are constantly pulled out of the classroom. Working together, we can create safe spaces, a place where they find people who understand, and care. Maybe then we’ll see that pipeline dismantled for good.