By Chelsey Seger, CFCC Student Fellow (2016-2017)
The Jungle Book is a story of a young boy who must adapt to his environment to survive. For many children in Baltimore City, their home and social environments resemble a jungle of poverty and violence, and they, too, must adapt their behavior to survive.
Imagine that you are a Baltimore City high school student, walking to school with your best friend. When you get to school you see him shot and killed by another student. You no longer have a best friend. A few weeks later, you see another one of your classmates stabbed and die in front of you while at school. Then, while you are still recovering from the loss of two friends, you hear gunshots at school. Another classmate was just killed. You have lost three friends in three months to violence at school. What would you do? How would you feel? How would you react? Whom would you turn to for help?
Unfortunately, this is a true story that happened last year in West Baltimore at Renaissance Academy High School. Growing up in the seventh most dangerous city in America has exposed Baltimore City youth to traumatic events in their homes, communities, and even their schools. They are living in violent and impoverished neighborhoods where crime, drug addiction, mental illness, and homelessness are the norm. Places where they are supposed to feel safe have turned into a jungle of violence, and if they want to survive, then they must learn to adapt. But to adapt means to buy a gun, or find another means to keep yourself safe and protected. To buy a gun in Baltimore is easy and cheap, and students know where and when to get one.
When I started as a volunteer tutor with CFCC’s Truancy Court Program, I quickly realized that my students have seen and experienced things that I hope I never will. Life is traumatic in these neighborhoods, where gun violence and crime are daily occurrences, and it is routine to witness the deaths of your family, relatives, and friends. As a result of these events, many youth suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which may be an underlying cause of aggressive behavior. PTSD affects a student’s mental ability to attend and participate in school, which increases the likelihood that he or she may become truant. Due to the plethora of problems plaguing their communities, the social and home environments are important factors to take into consideration when approaching problems related to truancy and misbehavior. These issues need to be addressed through early intervention programs that take into account a student’s social, family, and home environments. Schools may benefit from having experienced mental health clinicians and counselors on-site to identify and resolve issues relating to misbehavior and truancy in students. Programs such as CFCC’s Truancy Court Program can help address the root causes of truancy, increase student attendance rates, strengthen academic performance, and improve behavioral problems. They also can assist in developing trust between the youth and the legal system and can help foster positive relationships between students and their schools.
For those of us who have not had to grow up in this type of environment, we are privileged. We have had the good fortune to not grow up in a world of violence and poverty because of our ethnic background, where we live, and/or our socioeconomic status. We have had the privilege of never fearing whether or not we will survive to see another tomorrow or worrying about how we are going to survive today. But it does not have to be like this. It is not too late to clear the path in the urban jungles so that all of our youth can succeed. There are programs that teach youth how to move beyond the urban jungles toward a future that fosters success. They are based on an early intervention and ecological approach to prevent future misbehavior, provide therapeutic outcomes, and apply trauma-informed care in schools. Students who do not have the opportunity to participate in early intervention programs lack the supports necessary to be successful in school. Sadly, many of these youth become products of their environment. Without early intervention, underlying issues of crime and poverty will continue to affect the overall mental and physical ability of students and will prevent them from attending school and being successful in life.