Attention to ACEs can help keep at-risk youth in school

Did a parent or adult in your household often put you down, insult you or humiliate you or act in a way that made you fear you might be physically harmed? If the answer is yes, then you have scored at least one point out of 10 on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) test. If you were to keep taking the test and score anything above 0, you would be considered at risk of committing crimes, becoming addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, dropping out of school, etc.

For many students at Lincoln Alternative, ACEs have been a major part of their lives. But by focusing on addressing and dealing with ACEs as a way to help students stay in school, faculty at Lincoln have also helped students stay out of prison.

The school to prison pipeline is a recently discovered phenomenon in which students who attend poorly-funded public schools or come from impoverished backgrounds are more likely to fall through the cracks of the education system and end up in prison.

ACEs play a significant role in determining whether a student ends up in prison. Specifically, if a school does not help a student overcome his/her ACEs, then that student is far more likely to commit crime and be sent to prison for it.

Historically, students who misbehaved too much were sent to Lincoln Alternative. Lincoln has not infrequently served as a stepping stone in Walla Walla’s own school to prison pipeline, until a dramatic shift in disciplinary policy changed the way Lincoln approached its students.

It wasn’t until a few years ago, when then-new principal Jim Sporleder sought to find a way to reform Lincoln, that the idea of ACEs even became a part of the school vernacular. Jim had attended a psychology conference where he learned about adverse childhood experiences, and when he returned to Lincoln, was not so surprised to learn that many of the students score highly on the ACE tests.

The students who fall through the cracks of any public school system tend to have high ACE scores; their dropping out of school and ending up in prison is no coincidence. Many of their schools enforce “zero tolerance” policies where if you act out once, you are immediately suspended or expelled, depending on the severity of the act.

At Lincoln, however, if students skip class or get into a fight, they are more likely to meet with a counselor to figure out what may be happening at home that is affecting the way they are behaving at school. For many youth at Lincoln, they have parents who have been in and out of prison or adults in their household addicted to drugs, which does not set a positive example for them.

If a student goes to school but doesn’t feel that it is a safe space or if he or she feels unable to excel, then street crime and gang activity become increasingly appealing. The way to put a stopper to the school to prison pipeline is to adopt a motto similar to that of Lincoln’s, as well as find ways to keep students engaged in school. This is tricky at underfunded public schools because they do not have resources for the programs that could benefit students most.

However, it doesn’t cost anything to educate all teachers on ACEs. And there are ways to offer reduced programs such as creating a community garden where the students can work or starting a debate team. Addressing these ACEs head-on can help more completely address the problems that keep these students from succeeding in school, and put them too often in prison.

Anything that gives students purpose and makes them feel that even if no one at home cares or even if society expects them to fail, their teachers and school administrators do care and, in fact, know that they can succeed, will help students stay in school and out of prison.




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