Natives Fight Back Using Simple Life Courses
The shootings at Red Lake High School this spring brought to light some ugly statistics: Suicide among Native American youth is roughly 2.5 times higher than the national rate; alcohol-related deaths among this population between ages 15 to 24 are 17 times higher than national averages; and Native Americans' 35.5 percent school dropout rate is twice the U.S. average.
Unfortunately, these U.S. Department of Justice numbers aren't news to insiders like John Oliveira, the national child abuse coordinator for the Bureau of Indian Affair's Office of Law Enforcement Services in Billings, Mont. Suicide, he says, has been the second leading cause of death for youth aged 10 to 24 for years. "Quite honestly, it can't get much worse in Indian country," he says.
The whys are cloudy. Research into this population has been sketchy, made more difficult by the amalgamation of tribes, cultures and customs. And, of course, history took its toll. "We have the highest violent crime rate, highest domestic violence rate, highest child abuse rates and the highest poverty and illiteracy rates," Oliveira says. "Is it institutionalized racism and oppression from 150 years ago? Sure. But as we commonly say in Indian country, 'These are European influences, but they're native owned now. We have to do something about it within Indian country.'"
Experts are defining education's role in the turnaround. Oliveira recently convinced The Jason Foundation, a school-based national teen suicide prevention program based in Nashville, not to be confused with the JASON Foundation, to develop its curriculum for Native American youth. According to foundation's President and CEO Clark Flatt, the warning signs among this ethnic group don't differ from others so his program should reach this audience. The signs to look for in a friend include the person talking about suicide; feeling hopeless or worthless; preoccupied with death; and giving prized possessions away.
Oliveira also advocates life-skills courses in schools--practical lessons like how to buy a car, manage a checkbook, and survive off the reservation. "We need to tell kids it's OK to leave, to go to college," he says. "You can come back if you choose to or not. But it doesn't take away your identity."
Results at the 184 schools that the Bureau of Indian Affairs runs using similar tools are promising. Stanley Holder, alcohol, drug and violence prevention specialist at the Center for School Improvement in the BIA's Office of Indian Education Programs, says they've seen a marked decrease in high-risk behaviors from 1997 to today. The only area that experienced a 2 percent increase: suicide ideation.
"Red Lake opened our eyes to the fact that we must be conscious daily of what our students are saying through their actions, their moods, and their activities to determine their true needs," Holder notes.
Zero Tolerance = Jailhouse Hotel?
A 10-year old Philadelphia girl is taken to the police station in handcuffs for taking a pair of scissors to school for a project.
A 12-year-old Houston boy is taken to a juvenile detention center for unknowingly bringing to school a pocketknife left in his jacket from a Boy Scout meeting.
The students were disciplined under their schools' zero tolerance policy and some advocates are saying these codes of conduct have become so strict that schools are turning into criminal justice systems, or worse, jailhouses.
In a new report, Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track, the Advancement Project, a national racial justice advocacy group, says zero tolerance discipline polices force school districts to team up with law enforcement officials. Many students who didn't mean to hurt anyone are getting suspended and expelled.
"Acts once handled by a principal or a parent are now being handled by prosecutors and the police,'' says Judith Browne, acting co-director of the Advancement Project. The report also found minorities to often be disproportionately impacted by the policies.
But some states are trying to adjust the zero tolerance policies. Texas legislators are considering several bills that would add more flexibility to the strict discipline codes.
Billy Jacobs, senior director for safe schools for the Texas Education Agency and former juvenile probation officer, says he'd like to see schools ax the policies completely.
"I think we've lost our common sense,'' says Jacobs. "Children are children and they will have natural defiance and are we setting rules that are stricter than we have for adults?"
Zero tolerance policies began to take hold nationally in 1994 with the passage of the federal Gun Free School Act. That act required schools to pass laws mandating the expulsion of any student who brought a firearm to school. Many school districts expanded the mandate to include other disciplinary issues they didn't want to tolerate, such as attacks on teachers or drugs.
Bill Modzeleski, associate assistant deputy secretary for safe and drug free schools, says while the federal gun act allowed some discretion by giving school officials a chance to review mitigating circumstances before expelling a student, the expanded local policies often do not. "Part of this has little to do with the law and more to do with leadership at the local level about what is appropriate,'' says Modzeleski.
Bob Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, says school administrators who don't want to appear too lenient or biased often rely on zero tolerance policies.
Serious crime on school campuses, including aggravated assaults, has dropped from 245,400 incidents in 1992 to 88,100 in 2002, according to federal statistics.
Seattle Hopes To be Wireless Role Model
When teachers and administrators arrive at one Seattle high school this fall, they won't have to plug in to get online anymore. And soon thereafter, officials can monitor what's happening on the other side of the building from their Palms.
Franklin High School, serving 1,500 ninth- to 12th-grade students, is getting a full wireless upgrade, hoping to be a role model for other schools interested in using the latest technology to enhance their computer and school security capabilities.
The technology is being provided by Seattle-based CoCo Communications, which proposed a three-phase upgrade for the school that includes a wireless video surveillance system and an interoperable voice communication system with fire and police officials.
Franklin High School Principal Jennifer Wiley says the wireless upgrades will allow for mobile computer labs and a better visual security system.
"This is a building with eight entrances in an exposed part of a major intersection,'' says Wiley. "We have an opportunity because of new technology to be more proactively responsive."
Matt Dahlin, director of sales for CoCo, says it could cost a school between $75,000 and $175,000 to become wireless. Dahlin says the wireless overlay allows schools much more flexibility in their communication systems.
"It's very important because it helps to improve school safety using next generation technology. It creates a wireless security blanket around campus. It provides better visibility into schools by giving real-time video monitoring, allows not only school administrators but police and fire officials,'' says Dahlin.
During the second phase, wireless video cameras will be installed that will allow school officials to access video images from all eight entry points into the school via their laptops and pocket PCs. The third phase will focus on providing communication between school officials and public safety officials. "Children are our most valuable commodity,'' says Wiley. "Safety ought to be a priority."