" . . . organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
-- The Declaration
"Safety and happiness." Words from another time, about different circumstances, involving dissimilar people. Words that hardly apply to many of today's children.
Last week's column, "A City Lost to Shame," offered some of my own perceptions of what is going on with children in the District. After reading the piece, a longtime D.C. resident directed me to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance -- United States, 2003" for more information on District teens. "You should check out the numbers" and see how they match your personal observations, the reader suggested.
So I did. Last year's CDC-sponsored study of risky behavior in youth encompassed 32 states and 18 cities and counties, including the District. Students participating anonymously and voluntarily completed a self-administered questionnaire during a class period, recording their responses directly on a computer-scannable booklet or answer sheet.
The results were startling, especially when our children are compared with their peers around the country. In a nutshell, when it comes to behaviors that contribute to violence, D.C. teens are national standouts.
Last year the District led the nation in the percentage of high school students who carried a weapon outside school and ranked second only to New Orleans in the percentage of high schoolers who carried guns.
District teens were No. 1 among high school students who were physically injured in fights; experienced dating violence in which the student was hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by a boyfriend or girlfriend; carried a weapon on school property; were threatened or injured with a weapon on school property; injected illegal drugs; took steroids; and used heroin.
And District teenagers ran a close second to Philadelphia's in the percentage of high school students who attempted suicide and required medical attention.
Now, let's be clear about these numbers. They weren't manufactured by some detractor out to make the city's youth look bad. The figures are contained in a national study published on May 21, 2004. They confirm what some of us have, because of anecdotal information, long feared: Violence-prone behavior by District youth is above the national norm, even by comparison with cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and New York.
Any time 14 percent of District high school boys don't go to school because they feel unsafe either in class or on their way to or from school -- and that's what the survey showed -- our city is in a class by itself. And when 14 percent of District high school girls say they were physically forced to have sexual intercourse -- which ties them for the lead with girls in Philadelphia -- we have a horrible and poisonous situation on our hands.
After last week's column, another regular reader weighed in with the complaint that I never propose a solution beyond hand-wringing, blaming ourselves and asking, "What's become of us?"
That may or may not be true. This I know: I don't write these columns to get a load off my chest or to prove how right I am.
But, and I apologize for overuse of the pronoun, I do often use this space to point out that in this city, where we commemorate the famous and mighty in stone and boast of our culture and class, we fall short when it comes to children. And what do I mean by "we"?
Of course it starts with the home. Look behind some of those D.C. statistics, and you will find children in homes where they must fend for themselves; homes where they don't feel safe, let alone loved. Tension-filled homes where yelling is the principal means of communication. And still we ask these children, for whom hurt and anger are always just moments away, to go to school and learn.
Let's go further. Too many of them end up in classrooms with teachers who are either unprepared or unwilling to deal with the baggage these kids bring from home. And to top it off, the people responsible for setting the bar for student performance -- the very people who decide how much to spend on the schools -- have set the bar too low for themselves. I speak of the school board, the D.C. Council and the mayor, who pay lip service to public education, and then only when the cameras are rolling.
So is this another tiresome screed? If so, what's the point? It's this: As bad as things are, they aren't hopeless. We have the capacity to bring about change. Sometimes it requires breaking a little china -- or busting open the bureaucracy and redoing the agenda.
The public school system's Student Intervention Services, headed by Diane Powell, is the city's little engine that could, if only it had the kind of financial support and visibility that it deserves.
Powell knows kids. She also knows it's folly to try to develop a child academically while ignoring the child's social and emotional needs. Too many schools do just that.
And in her 30 years of working with children in all kinds of professional settings, she has seen many good kids and their parents make bad choices. Powell, who works on the kind of problems cited in the CDC's Youth Risk Behavior report, is trying to fight back.
She introduced a suicide awareness program in all the high schools last year and says she will start in the middle and junior high schools next year.
Twenty-two schools now have mental health programs for teens in need, thanks to Powell's work with the city's Mental Health Department. Next week she's bringing together 600 teachers, social workers and court officials for classes that will build their capacity to handle bullying, sexual harassment and conflict and to decode teen behavior. The idea is to teach professionals how to reclaim children and facilitate positive behavior.
Recognizing weaknesses in families, Powell started parent center support programs in 29 schools. She's also launched programs for teen parents, including those who are incarcerated; for kids whose parents are incarcerated; and for parents of truants. She's targeted those parents who are the most difficult to reach. Last year 2,500 parents went through her programs; 98 percent of them said they learned how to work better with their children, she said. Her list of to-dos is long and her arms are short. But she's trying.
The job of reclaiming our youth is too big for one person or a small, obscure unit in the school system. But does the Student Intervention Services branch have to remain small and obscure? Rescuing children -- not bringing in Major League Baseball, gilding downtown or making developers rich -- should be the city's top priority. That's where our time, talents and treasury should go, too.
"They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity."
-- The Declaration