I had been asleep for a few hours when I answered the call. At first, I did not realize it was my work cell phone. The caller on the other end was sobbing uncontrollably and in the background I could hear someone yelling, “You’re a f#c%ing hoe. Why do you think you are so much better than us? What makes you think you can live here for free, you f#c%ing b!t@#.”
“Take a deep breath,” I said to the caller. “Tell me where you are.”
“I’m at home. My mom and sister won’t leave me alone. They want me to f#c% men for money, like my sister does. They are mad that I am a going to school and not giving them any money. I just want to graduate. I just want a chance to get out of here. They don’t understand and they won’t leave me alone.”
It was Sandra, a 17-year-old student, a senior in the high school where I am the director. Sandra had enrolled in our school the previous year after her probation officer had brought her in for a tour and recommended that she attend our school. She was on probation due to several marijuana offenses, an assault charge, and ongoing truancy issues. During the enrollment process, Sandra’s completed the ACEs Plus Survey (the ACEs questions, plus 15 other questions identifying risk factors specific to education barriers faced by youth at our school). Her score was 21 out of 25.
Sandra had been raped several times, the first time when she was only 12. She had been born into a gang family, her father, uncles, and cousins were all gang members. She had been beaten regularly at home and by her gang “family.” Her father was in prison serving his third sentence, this time for attempted murder. She used drugs and alcohol – with her mother and siblings, and she was dealing with a number of other significant life issues.
“Sandra, are you okay? Are you hurt?” I asked. Of course she was hurt, she was living in hell, but I needed to know if she was injured. I needed to know if I should call the police. I had learned the hard way that I can’t ask youth in these situations if I should call the police. They always said no, and if I did it anyway, they viewed my actions as a violation of their trust; a family member would pull the student out of school and another vulnerable child would disappear into life on the streets. In Sandra’s life, the police were not a resource; they were part of the problem. Her assault charge and one of her drug charges had been the result a fight with her mother. In that incident, Sandra had called 911 because she thought her mom was going to kill her. But when the police showed up, Sandra’s mom reported that Sandra was out of control, and that she was using drugs. Her mother gave the police a small bag of marijuana and said it was Sandra’s. She told the police that the entire fight had erupted because she had found this bag of weed in her daughter’s room and she had taken it away from her. The weed actually belonged to Sandra’s mother.
“I can defend myself,” she said between sobs, “but I need to get out of here… or I will end up in prison.” Sandra’s entire life had been violent. When she first started attending our school, she was one of the students who would physically strike someone who had offended her. She did not initiate conflict, but once a conflict started, she would do whatever she had to do to defend herself. In most cases, she was only defending herself from the words of another angry and hurt young person. However, Sandra had come a long way since her first days at our school. She knew how to walk away from violence. She had become one of the students whom our school staff members could depend on to help deescalate a situation. It was not uncommon to hear Sandra tell a peer, “Don’t do it, it’s not worth going to jail over that,” or “Just walk away, we aren’t here for that b^!!$h!t; we are here to graduate and do something better.”
Our school uses restorative justice to address policy violations. Restorative justice is a time-consuming process because it involves engaging the victim, offender, and other members of the community who were impacted by the incident. So, while it does not resolve issues quickly, it is the most effective mechanism for helping our students learn how to address issues for long-term solutions. One of the constant struggles these youth face is a lack of consistency and security. If we suspended or expelled students for the same reasons other schools suspend or expel students, we would be perpetuating the same problem. These children need to know that people believe in them, that they are worth the effort it takes to get to the heart of an issue, that they are part of a broader community that supports them, and that there are options for addressing conflicts that do not include violence.
“Can you get out of the house and go somewhere safe? Can I call someone to come and pick you up?” I asked.
“Shay is coming to get me. Just stay on the phone with me until she gets here, please.” Shay was another student at our school, a young woman who had just turned 18. She faced many of the same challenges Sandra was facing. Both Shay and Sandra were in their senior year and both would be graduating at the end of the school year. One of our graduation requirements is that every student has to apply for admission at three post-secondary institutions and for financial aid. If a student is already employed in a field that has the potential to pay him or her a livable wage, then the student may opt to create a resume, draft a cover letter, and create a career plan based on their career interest. Both Sandra and Shay were college bound. Shay had not decided on which career path she wanted to follow, but she planned to work on her “generals” for the first year or two while she weighed the options between becoming a nurse or a social worker. Sandra was determined to start her career in accounting and then pursue a masters degree in business.
When Shay and Sandra had first enrolled at our school, just a few months apart, they were both significantly behind in credit. Neither of the young women were motivated to work on academics, but both were required to attend every day because they were on probation. For the first few weeks of school, as we do with all students, we encouraged them to work on projects that interested them. And like most of our students, they began doing research on topics such as why marijuana should be legal, or what types of guns were legal to carry.
We use a project based learning model where students are encouraged to follow their interests. They don’t initially understand why we let them research drugs or guns; in fact, we often find that students use those first few projects to test us, to see how far they can push us. Disenfranchised students are often so accustomed to being let down, that they create opportunities to “catch us” failing to support them, to let their negative actions become more of an issue then we are willing to address, or sometimes even to frighten us away from them.
Only through time are we able to break through their fears and demonstrate that we are not going to give up on them. While they are working on those first few “scary” projects, they are also going to “classes” (we call them groups or seminars) that fit their needs and meet their interests. Sometimes they join the behavior management seminar, the girls group, the boys group, the healthy relationships seminar, or the trauma and healing group. They also participate in monthly all-school field trips that are required, like bowling, Grand Slam, roller skating, or a movie. For some students these experiences are “stupid”, which usually means it is a new experience or a new environment, and their attitudes are reflective of their fears. As staff at a school with students who have seen more life on the streets than most people will ever understand, we know that these events are not about earning school credit (although they do earn credit), rather these events are about connections within the community, they are opportunities to do things that these students don’t typically have the option to do, and to see their peers from a new perspective. Typically within a few months, students have started to feel like they belong.
As a public school, students have to earn credit in academic areas as defined by the state. But we can’t start with academics; we have to start at something much more basic than that, helping the student find a few small successes so that they can start to believe in themselves again. The beauty of the project-based learning process is that we get to know our students really well. Their projects reveal their lives to us without us having to ask. Additionally, every project, regardless of the topic, teaches the student how to use an intentional process that starts with a thought or an idea, transitions to gathering data and information, requires deliberate analysis of information, and clarifies (and often changes) their opinions. With the flexibility that is inherent in the project-based learning process, students also have opportunities to take part in intensive learning experiences that lead to certifications, licenses, or internships in a variety of career fields, including business (accounting for Sandra) or health care (certified nursing assistant for Shay).
Shay was one of our few students who lived with both of her parents. Her family had learned about our school through a relative after Shay had been kicked out of six other high schools for drug use and fighting. The engagement of her parents in her life, even with the chaos that ensued around issues of poverty and violence, had made a significant difference in Shay’s ability to catch up with her academic credits, even though she had enrolled several months after Sandra. Shay had already met all of her graduation requirements and there was still a month and a half until the end of the school year. Shay essentially completed two and a half years of school in a year and a half. Shay consideres herself to be “clean” of drugs although she still uses marijuana. She had not used heroin or meth, two of her previous drugs of choice, since she enrolled at our school. With her parents’ support, I had no doubt that Shay would find success in her life, regardless of the career path she chose.
As I listened to the fighting at Sandra’s house, and heard the desperation in her voice as she continued to give me updates on what was happening, I could not help but wonder how this young woman found the courage and resilience to pursue options that might ultimately put this hell behind her forever. I knew that by her reaching out to me, she was not at risk of becoming a dropout statistic, but I also knew that she was going to need ongoing, consistent support for many more years.
Shay arrived at Sandra’s house, and with her phone still in her hand, I heard Sandra slam the door behind her and run to the car. After a few more minutes on the phone, talking with both girls at once on speaker phone, I told them both that they were incredibly amazing young women. They told me that it was Shay who had suggested that Sandra call me, and that they had not known who else to call. Sandra apologized profusely for calling me so late and for waking me up, and thanked me for taking her call. I reminded them both that if there was ever a time they could not reach me, any of our support team would have been available to them, even in the middle of the night, and I told them both that I was really glad they had called.
Sandra and Shay both came to school the next day - literally six and a half hours after we had hung up. Shay spent most of her day working with another student, two years her junior, whom she had taken under her wing. Sandra spent some of the day in my office helping with a filing project and talking periodically about her “crazy” family. Other students heard about Sandra’s evening through the student grapevine. Throughout the day students stopped by to check in on her, to give her hugs and to share their own theories and stories about “crazy” families. Sandra met with social services support staff at our school to discuss alternative housing options in shelters for abused women and some longer term transitional housing options; she also met with our school counselor to create a crisis plan to help her get through the weekend.
Sandra and Shay’s stories represent glimpses into the issues facing so many of our youth today. In a small school like ours, we are fortunate to know the individual stories of each of our students, and have the flexibility to provide individualized support. But, based on the results in the CDC’s ACE Study, we know that many youth are experiencing significant trauma and are not being identified until well after the damage has been done. By deploying trauma-informed care approaches into their systems, schools are just one mechanism to identify youth who are at risk. Changing the outcomes for future generations requires communities to take preventive measures to end exposure to toxic stress in children, to create strategic opportunities that build resilience and self-esteem, and to address the trauma already experienced in all youth.
**Some identifying details above have been altered to preserve the anonymity of the students.
Leisa Irwin is executive director of Paladin Academy, a charter school in Blaine, MN.