It takes me ten minutes to get to work in the morning and every day, at some point during that drive, I become keenly aware of the permanent knot between my shoulders. That's because every day, at some point during that drive, I have two thoughts: "Please don't let any of the kids get hurt today" and "Please don't let any of the kids do something horrible today." Every day before I see the 150 kids who make up the public alternative school we started two years ago, I have to worry about whether or not they all made it through the night in one piece.
When people come to The NET Charter High School in New Orleans, they talk about how calm it is and how happy the students look. Then they say one of two things: If they know alternative schools, they say, "You must not really have the hard kids;" if they don't know alternative schools they say, "This isn't how I imagined them. They seem like good kids."
Internally, I give thanks that the visitor just missed Ariel's screaming meltdown in response to a teacher asking her to pick up her head off the desk -- a meltdown which was really over the fact she suspects she is pregnant and she would rather kick a few holes in the wall before she admits it. Externally, I'm not sure what to say. Of course they are the "hard kids" -- they are homeless, traumatized, middle school level readers who smoke pot to forget that they have recurring nightmares about Katrina, about getting raped, about their friend's death.
Of course they are "good kids"-- they calm down after cursing you out, tell you what's really wrong, tell you that they are sorry for taking it out on you, and ask for help. On a good day, they come to school on Saturday to ask for help with math and end up cleaning your office for you; on a bad day, they steal their favorite teacher's car and abandon it on the other side of the city knowing (from experience) that by the time the fingerprints get run in two years, they and the teacher will have moved on.
Our students are among those who make New Orleans one of the most violent cities in the US -- they've shot people and they get shot. That's why I have a knot in my neck. Because while I'm trying to figure out how to pay for a new set of calculators, how to get Alisha to stop swearing at the Dean and how to help the math teacher teach geometry to a student with Traumatic Brain Injury, I also have to worry that one of them won't make it through any given night.
That's also why the NET exists. We believe that if we give our students access to opportunities, experiences, mentors, internships and diplomas, they will spend more time in school and at jobs and less time on the street. They will also have more to look forward to and they will be more likely to make choices that let them sleep peacefully at night.
Our students need a lot of things: they need a safe place to sleep every night, they need condoms and drug counseling and intensive reading support. Our school doesn't have things our students need like a health clinic or a day care center or even an onsite psychiatrist. Our city doesn't have things our students need like adolescent mental health beds, enough public housing or even a comprehensive way to track who is dropping out of school. We will never eliminate the violence in our city without these.
But at the NET we know we can't wait for these things. So in the meantime, we do the only thing we know to work: we've grounded the school in restorative practices in order to teach our students how to build their communication, conflict resolution and problem solving skills.
Patrick came to our school after attending several schools, including one at which he tried to choke a teacher. Shortly after starting with us, he was shot in the shoulder by a bullet which may or may not have been ordered by another student. This summer, two years later, Patrick is in his senior year and working in a hydroponic garden at a fancy new downtown grocery store. He was able to get this job because he had an internship at an urban gardening program, a placement he secured through our school's internship program.
Patrick has a strong mom and a stable place to live. These two pieces are key. But they weren't enough to counteract his struggles with Emotional Disturbance. Patrick is diagnosed with ED which, although African American boys are notoriously over identified as such, is accurate for Patrick. He struggles with communicating his feelings, with thinking before acting, with separating reality from myth, with taking responsibility. When he is frustrated, confused, sad, he reacts with a level of violence disproportionate to the situation.
His mom, teachers, and mentors couldn't get him out of the trouble he kept getting into. And we can't eliminate it either. There have been plenty of temper tantrums, fights with other students, thrown chairs and lots of not following directions. I'm sure too, that this year, his last before he graduates, there will be more. And on some level, Patrick will struggle with his temper and his trauma all of his life. But having watched his growth for two years, I, his teachers, his mom, and the whole city of New Orleans can feel much more confident that Patrick will make it through any given night. The chance that Patrick will finish his classes, graduate and keep a job are hundreds of times higher now than two years ago when he was on his way to getting locked up for assault or shot through some place other than his shoulder. There is no guarantee, but the odds are much better. In New Orleans, right now, we have to start with better odds.
The NET didn't give Patrick anything revolutionary or even that expensive. In fact, the only thing that was transformative was the use of restorative practices.
Because of the school and staff's commitment specifically to students like Patrick, we are able to spend hundreds of hours having hundreds of conversations with Patrick, with his mom, with the students he fought with, with the teachers he disrespected, with the classes he disrupted. Every conversation -- casual or formal -- has the same intent: to help Patrick articulate what happened and why (as in, what really made you throw the chair?), what was his part in it (as in, even though you threw the chair because you were frustrated, you still threw the chair and you have to take responsibility for that damage) and what was he going to do to fix it, learn from it, be different moving forward.
These conversations are harder than they seem. Sometimes Patrick just sat there and wouldn't talk; sometimes his version of events was so far from ours that we had to take a reality time out, sometimes our frustration got the better of us and we would just lecture, sometimes we were balancing Patrick's growth with someone else's safety. But over the last two years, Patrick has moved from denying responsibility to owning it, from refusing to make things right when he hurt someone to recognizing the feelings of others and asking how to fix the wrongs he created.
The NET didn't do this alone. The Center for Restorative Approaches works with our students and students in other schools to teach the same practices. When Patrick was shot we called Cease Fire, a street-based anti-violence/anti-gang group to mediate between the students. The Center and others in the city have realized that we don't have time to wait for sweeping reforms and better resources. Instead, we have to start with time and with talk.
It is slow, it's hard and it isn't enough to solve our city's problems.
Our students still get locked up and two of them were killed this summer. But it is a start -- we can't wait for early childhood education to pay off or for the state to build an adolescent mental health hospital. We can't even wait for prescriptions to be filled or Family Services to show up. Instead, we need to start, kid by kid, with the things we know best: give students time, build relationships with them, teach them how to take responsibility, help them make it right and help them develop the skills, relationships, confidence and experiences they need to make it through the night.
The depth of violence in our city is deep and the chaos is enough to give me that overwhelmed feeling every morning but New Orleans is also a small city. If more of us commit to the Patricks of the city and more of us commit to using restorative practices, there is no reason to believe that we can't make a substantial and sustainable impact on the number of young people who make it through the night.
Please note: The names in this article have been changed to respect the privacy of the students mentioned.