This live action photo is disturbing. The young man in it is participating in an incarceration simulation that is designed to discourage the behavior and thought patterns that typically result in kids winding up being sent to prison. The kids have been in trouble before in school and at home and some judge has recommended them for the opportunity to be “scared straight” rather than leaving them on the typical glide path to the penal system that results from acting a fool. If you have ever seen one of these simulations, you know how graphic the language can be, how aggressive the inmates can be, how abrasive and inhumane the guards can be, and ultimately just how vulnerable these kids can be. Frightening stuff for sure, and I have no doubt that a “scared straight” experience is effective at times.
But take a closer look at the picture: change out the clothes from prison jump suits to t-shirts and jeans and this is a scene that you might see in many high schools in rough neighborhoods America. Anecdotal evidence is not the best but I have plenty of it to support my position that there is troubling congruity between the emotional environment of many public schools and what we understand is the environment in a correctional facility.
I spent many years in the public school systems in Detroit and Atlanta and can testify that the experience of the boy in this picture is not unique to the diversion program that he is taking part in. What is more telling is the stark difference in the environment that I witnessed when I entered a private prep school on scholarship. Calling it ‘night and day’ does the contrast absolutely no justice.
As adults we forget how free we are and we take it for granted entirely. If we are unhappy someplace, we can just leave- subject to our own limitations of course. If there is a person that we don’t want to be around, we can just leave that person, again subject to our own self-imposed limitations. But when you are a pre-teen or a teenager, you are completely under the control of other people- a necessary social construct for sure, but one that can be emotionally and even physically perilous. When a child attends a school where there is an active bullying culture (and far too many children do) their emotional turmoil is not unlike that of the boy in the photo who is surrounded by hulking, hostile and hungry inmates who are evidently toying with their prey.
Just like the boy in this picture, a kid who is singled out at school by social predators can’t go anywhere either. That kid is stuck in that place every day surrounded by people he DOES NOT want to be around. He feels threatened and unsafe. He feels like asking for help will anger his tormentors and likely worsen his plight. He feels like there is no escape and that he must do whatever he has to do to get through the experience. He feels like he has no control. And largely he is correct. All of those feelings will back up on this kid and they will come out SOMEWHERE in his life. And I am willing to bet that it will not be anywhere positive. Examine this last shot:
This picture is from some kids Facebook posting and is every bit as disturbing as the others if not more. Here is a boy backed up to a wall. He is afraid and there is no escape. He is in a place where he has to be and the only other people around are watching the spectacle of his victimization. Do we really think that because the surroundings look different (i.e., whiter) that the emotional and psychological burden is any different for this kid than the ones pictured above? It is the same and he will be a mess if he has to continue to deal with this in perpetuity.
Because I am not a teacher and have never worked in the school environment I am always cautious about handing out advice to the people who do that difficult work. But since I have been a parent for a long time I can hand out this advice: do whatever you have to do to spend a little time in your child’s school environment or even if your child is not in school anymore in your local neighborhood school. The reason is that active civic engagement is a part of the remedy to EVERY social problem and this one is no different. Sometimes, just being present is enough. The “see something say something” battle-cry to combat terrorism is far more effective in our school hallways than anywhere else but we have to be there to “see something.” I know the logistics of our lives aren’t necessarily designed for investments of time like this, but that is on us to tinker with that design. Because what is missing in scenes like this is an authority figure standing by idly while this predatory grooming takes place. That is not human nature and is not going to happen. Just being present matters and could actually save a kid’s life- or preserve the quality of his life for certain.
If parents are in the halls of schools, they will see things and they will be seen. That fact alone will help to turn the culture. This is neither a silver bullet nor an overnight fix but you have to start somewhere. Because one thing that I am absolutely certain of: if kids in school are going through this (and they are) one thing they are not doing is learning much of anything that will make them competitive in the global marketplace they are supposed to be preparing to enter. And then we all will pay the price for our neglect for many years to come.