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As kids go back to school, this teacher hopes a form will help save student lives

Carmen Garner stands in his classroom at Shepherd Elementary School.
Carmen Garner stands in his classroom at Shepherd Elementary School. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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The teenager stood on the curb, closed his eyes and walked across the street.

He knew it would take only one distracted driver or someone with slow reflexes to end his life — and, in that moment, he willed that to happen.

Carmen Garner was 15.

“I was just so depressed and so overwhelmed,” he recalled. “I didn’t want to live. I didn’t want to continue going through the things I was going through.”

At the time, Garner had lost his mother to HIV, his father had abandoned the family and his brother had been charged with murder and faced a life sentence. More than once before he graduated from high school, the teenager stood on the edge of that street, which separated a friend’s house from his aunt’s, and took one step after another, eyes shut.

Garner is now a 40-year-old art teacher for D.C. Public Schools, and if he wanted, he could choose to push away those dark thoughts. Instead, he pulls them in close. On his inner left wrist, he has a tattoo of a Band-Aid to remind him of those suicidal moments and why he needs to keep trying to reach those students who are now standing where he once did — on an edge, feeling hopeless.

In a video Garner posted recently on Twitter, he says none of that. He does not talk about watching relatives shoot heroin into their bodies or passing through 17 homes before graduating from high school. But if you watch the video — and you should — it’s important to know what he has experienced to understand why he speaks so passionately about a piece of paper that D.C. Public Schools sent home for the first time this year in enrollment packages.

In the video, Garner holds up a form titled “Consent for Social Emotional Services” and describes it as “one of the most important documents that I’ve seen in my 18 years of working, because it lets you know what kids are needing of services.”

“This document lets us know as teachers what kids are at risk,” he says in the 2-minute-20-second clip. “So it makes our jobs a little bit easier, especially if you’re a mentor, especially if you’re someone who is involved in the community and trying to be an advocate for kids.”

Many parents in the District probably didn’t notice the new document tucked among all the others in their enrollment packages. Paperwork is tedious by nature, and most of us rush through it. If that document didn’t apply to their children, parents probably tossed it aside without much thought. And if it did apply, their attention was probably focused on more pressing matters than a new form.

But whether we live in the nation’s capital or far from it, we should take notice of that piece of paper because it speaks to larger issues vulnerable children face in this country, and if Garner is right, it could make a major difference for some of them.

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“I want that paper in every school in America,” he said when we spoke recently. He has already contacted Springfield, Mass., where he grew up, to try to get the school system to adopt the form. He said he knows too well that children there are also “broken” — a word he stands by even though it’s controversial — and they need to heal before they can learn.

“I was a broken kid, so I can say that,” he said. “A kid that is coming from traumatic experiences, they don’t care about school. If you know when you left your house that morning, you saw your mom shooting heroin in her arm, or if the night before your brother was arrested, you’re not going to care about school.”

On the form, parents are asked to check a box for students who have experienced homelessness, parental divorce or separation, an incarcerated parent, foster care, death of a close family member or other trauma.

Before that existed, Garner said he and other educators had no way of knowing that information. If a student was identified as needing extra support, it was often for academic reasons. To get to their emotional needs, he said, educators had to look closely for signs even as students tried to hide their needs and blend in with their classmates. Then those teachers had to ask the right questions.

For Garner, one year that meant noticing a black boy with white knuckles and asking why he chewed on his hands.

“I’m hungry,” came the reply.

Other students, he said, have stood out because they appear withdrawn, depressed or unable to control their emotional outbursts, such as a young man who threw a chair and cursed out a teacher on the anniversary of his father’s death.

“Then there are some kids that you have no idea” need help, said Garner, who now teaches at Shepherd Elementary School but has also taught at middle schools.

Garner, who runs two mentoring programs and is a published author, credits Tony Lewis Jr. with getting the form into the enrollment packages. Lewis, whose father is in prison serving a life sentence, said he began advocating three years ago for the schools to find a way to assess how many students had incarcerated parents. He then worked with school officials to expand the list of traumas on the form that was eventually approved.

Shari Ostrow Scher, who worked for Frederick County Public Schools for nearly 30 years and is now the executive director of Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership, said schools could benefit from knowing the traumas their students face. She described that information as having the potential not only to help educators understand a student’s behavior better, but also to change the way they address it. “Why did you do that?” could become “What happened to you?”

But Scher cautioned that the information has to be handled carefully, because not all children know the truth about their own situations. When parents are incarcerated, some children are told they went on vacation or joined the military or went back to school.

“Sadly, in many cases, the children don’t know what happened,” Scher said. “They just know someone is gone.”

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When Garner speaks to students, he tells them the truth.

He tells them about a teenager who thought he had to choose between selling drugs and working in a factory when his principal pushed him to apply to college. He tells them how that college student showed up on campus his first day carrying only a pillowcase filled with clothes. He tells them how that student graduated and became an educator and a father who now has so much to live for.

“The message I want them to understand is you don’t have to be a product of your circumstances,” he said. “You can be a product of your decision-making.”

Garner has not yet seen any forms come back from his students, but he is watching for them.

And when they do come in to his school and others, he said he hopes each building is equipped with counselors and psychologists who can help students deal with emotional traumas that may have always existed but are now, finally, no longer hidden.

Read more:

‘I hope that they find normalcy’: What a D.C. dad’s fight for his daughters’ education says about girls of color in school

A parental walk of shame in the back-to-school aisles — and a hope for the new school year

‘I don’t wanna die no mo’: The song these D.C. youths hope will stop people from picking up guns

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