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Beyond Textbooks, D.C. Schools Face a Host of Social Needs

Ohanian Comment: Here, members of the august Congressional education committees can see children left behind right in their own backyard. But they are too busy pontificating, listening to vested interests, and passing legislation to look at real kids.

In our nation's capital, teachers are sending hungry children home with boxes for food. Maybe members of Congress should hear the expert testimony of these children as well as the words of the likes of Bill Gates, Harold McGraw III, Edward B. Rust, Jr., Amy Wilkins, G. Reid Lyon, et al.

By Robert E. Pierre

On the third floor at Johnson Middle School in Southeast Washington, behind a wood door, sits an unlikely tool in the District's effort to uncover neglect and abuse.

It's called the LifeSTARTS Basement, a play off the national discount retailer.

Pink shelves are filled with sweaters, pants and blouses for girls. Jeans and T-shirts for boys are stacked on the blue shelves. An ironing board sits in the corner so the mostly secondhand items can be pressed and neatly folded before being distributed.

"Some of the kids need the closet because their parents use drugs or don't care for them," said Derrick Johnson, 13, a youth adviser at the school. "They wear the same clothes constantly. That closet shows them somebody cares."

Following the deaths of the four young daughters of Banita Jacks, who has been charged with their murders, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) fired city workers who, he said, should have responded more promptly to warning signs. He then chided remaining social workers to be more vigilant in protecting the city's most vulnerable. Since the girls' decomposing bodies were discovered in January, reports of potential abuse and neglect quadrupled, placing additional stress on the city's Child and Family Services Agency.

Teachers, principals and outreach and social workers said the key to preventing abuse is gaining students' trust. At schools across the District, this process often starts with a bag of groceries, a ride home, help finding a place to sleep or hand-me-downs to replace tattered and filthy garments. In addition to staving off hunger pains and taunts from other students, the goal is to send the message that, in times of crisis, students have a place to turn to.

This is important, educators said, because abuse is easily masked.

"Not all kids who are abused are dirty," said Nadine Evans, an administrator at Young America Works Public Charter School in Northeast. "Not all children who are neglected have physical scars. It doesn't matter how awful things are, kids can function. . . . Somehow they piece together enough to put on a front. Inside, everything is broken."
Stretched Thin

School social workers, counselors and teachers are not authorized to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect, but as in the Jacks case, they often are the first to notice. A bruise. A scar. A normally active child who is silent. Everyone working at schools, from janitors up to principals, is required by law to report any suspicions of neglect and abuse.

In schools with a social worker on staff, that task typically falls to them.

At Hart Middle School, that is Ann Brogioli. If any of the 400 students who are not in special education at the school in Southeast Washington need help, they come to Brogioli. Teachers send her children she classifies as the "super angry" ones, who misbehave, curse at teachers and get labeled by staff as lazy and unruly. She keeps an eye out for runaways and regularly counsels children torn up over the violent deaths of one or both parents.

Even former students and their parents still show up asking her to listen to their family woes and advise them what to do. Sometimes, she finishes one appointment to find another student waiting to catch her ear. She also is expected to organize assemblies and field trips.

"You don't have time to really dig deep," she said. "You don't get a chance to do the therapeutic work you thought you were signing up to do."

D.C. public schools, with 50,000 children, have 117 social workers, 31 provided by the city's Department of Mental Health. The agency also provides 11 social workers to charter schools; many of them also hire their own. Virtually all the social workers in the traditional public schools are assigned to students with learning disabilities and emotional problems.

One of them, Candi Peterson, shuttles among four schools. Last year, Peterson had a truancy case that reminded her of the Jacks case. A student had missed 70 days of school, prompting a report to the Child and Family Services Agency. She said the agency never reported back to her to indicate what the problem was. The student eventually returned months later but offered no clear explanation for the absence.

George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, says more social workers are desperately needed. He believes every school deserves its own social worker.

"The children come with such significant needs that having a social worker is not a luxury," he said. "It's a need."
Homelessness and Neglect

Ten families at AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School's three sites are homeless this year.

Stacey King, the social worker responsible for the 150 3- and 4-year-olds, reported two cases of potential abuse this year. One involved a child who told King that he had been burned by his mother on a stove. The other came after a parent failed to pick up a 3-year-old at the end of the day. The District contracts with groups such as Positive Nature, a therapeutic program for after school, holiday breaks and summers.

Most referrals are abuse and neglect cases, said Jennifer Murphy, the group's director and co-founder. Many of the children it has served come from foster homes, have been suspended several times from school or have been exposed to substance abuse. The problems start early.

"We're seeing these issues presenting at younger and younger ages," said Murphy, who seeks to alter their behavior through art, woodworking and drama.

Young America Works, a high school with 250 students, has four social workers and counselors, all with more work than they can handle. The needs are staggering.

The recent shooting of a student's friend set off a wave of grief. Dozens of students came to school for days afterward wearing T-shirts with the images of loved ones they had lost, some months or years earlier.

Whenever that happens, and it does regularly, it takes days or weeks for the student body to settle down, Evans said, sometimes only with the help of extra grief counselors.

Every day, two or three students living in a shelter arrive early to shower and change into clean clothes. Lunch at the school is catered by an outside vendor, but the school keeps food that is easy to microwave or eat right away in a small pantry off the main office.

One Monday morning, a student showed up for school more than an hour early, famished. He said he hadn't eaten all weekend. Then, after he was given some food, he ate so much that he threw up.

Some students who don't have enough food at home are given boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables from a food bank to take home.

This type of triage is necessary before teachers at the school, which has an aviation lab, a music studio and a library reading room that looks like an upscale bookstore, can even start doing meaningful teaching. Hungry kids can't focus on lessons; neither can children facing a court date or the threat of being taken to a foster home.

"The need is so profound," Evans said, "it is nearly over our heads."
Barriers to Assistance

Administrators must be careful not to betray trust but also to conform with the law. It's not unusual for parents to threaten school workers who are about to report them for alleged abuse. Students don't always take kindly to the reports, either.

Some say they have been abused, then deny it when pressed.

The Student Support Center, a nonprofit group that helps charter schools train teachers, is trying to show schools how to combat depression and violence. One program shows teenage students how to have "safe dates" without hitting. The center's executive director, Eve Brooks, said in large setting, it's possible to send a message to kids who might otherwise fly below the radar.

"If they are very quiet, sometimes the schools don't recognize that many may be depressed," Brooks said. "We tend to get the acting-out kids. One hundred percent of the kids need some type of support."

— Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post


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