Last week in Wilmington, Delaware, a 16 year-old girl died after being attacked in the girl’s bathroom at Howard High School of Technology. According to DelawareOnline, Amy Joyner-Francis went into the bathroom on Thursday morning where she was joined by two other girls. She was then taken out in a stretcher and later died in the hospital from her injuries.
The death of a child is always shocking and tragic. This incident has been especially shaking as it took place in a setting that most parents would consider safe–school. As a mentor, educator, and leader in the community, I feel the need to speak out. Especially, since it seems that this young girl’s death seemed to not get as much media attention as one would think that a school tragedy like this should receive. Today, I want to speak up not only for the young girls, but also in solidarity with faculty and staff in the schools that we serve via Polished Pebbles Girls Mentoring Program, and school-age educators across the country.
Bullying and violence are scary realities for our youth. Bullying is simply not a “phase” in child development, and victims of bullying should not be told to simply “buck up” or “learn to defend yourself”. The tragedy of Amy Inita Joyner-Francis is a reflection of the challenges our girls are facing today. When creating preventative programs for violence in youth, the focus has often been on young men. As a society we have often solely attributed physical violence to men and have left our young women unguarded. The truth is that our girls are witnessing the same violence in their neighborhoods as young men. Thus, they are learning the same social behaviors and experiencing the same trauma. This can and does affect their relationships, behavior, and decision-making processes. This has been the message of Polished Pebbles since its inception; we need to draw attention to the other side of the crisis.
Mentoring programs play an important role for our girls. Often times they fill the gaps in what schools are able to provide; whether that be academic, cultural, athletic, and are often categorized as programs to support students’ social emotional learning. I acknowledge that external mentoring programs play a crucial role in fighting this problem in our schools. Because as mentors from the school’s surrounding community or businesses, we are able to be there and often provide perspectives, resources, and support that our partnering schools, parents, and students’ friends are unable to. And, as schools are being presented with increased pressure to produce high academic scores, they are unable to focus on the socioemotional development of our children. After almost seven years of partnering with schools to provide Polished Pebbles to their girls I’ve seen firsthand what these pressures can impact school culture, negatively effect the morale of school leadership, faculty, and staff. Not to mention the seemingly endless budget crisis affecting public schools in Chicago, and across the country is a piercing reality that can be potentially draining for all of us, including programs like ours. Often one social worker, or counselor can be assigned to multiple schools and carrying inconceivably large caseloads. The tragedy in Delaware is a cry out for programs and classes focusing on positive relationship building, communication, conflict resolution, and managing emotions. Mentorship programs can and do provide this programming for girls. However, the solution does not lie with us alone.
This type of violence we are witnessing in our schools goes far beyond the need for more mentoring programs. It calls out the needs for more improved infrastructure and support for our girls in school. With the shrinking of schools’ budgets, come cuts in resources to simply keep the school open and running. As academics have to persevere, schools have no choice but to let go of other resources. The number of social workers, counselors, and other emotional support positions at schools are shrinking. We have seen this at the Chicago schools we work with for Polished Pebbles. And, our programs can no where no provide the appropriate level of expertise, and intensity of services that can only be provided by these highly coveted and respected colleagues of ours. Our girls need these resources, these services, these relationships, available to them. And, quite frankly, as external partners, we need our counseling and social work colleagues to best serve their students. Our schools need increased funding and focus on the sociodevelopment of not only our girls, but all our youth. This is not to say schools are at fault or failing our youth. It is a much larger institutional issue, tied up in red tape and confusing language.
As a community, we have to come together to stand by our girls–raise their voices so they receive the resources and support they need to succeed. This can only be achieved when we publicly acknowledge the greater need for support for our social work, and counseling colleagues in schools across the country. So, today to support Amy Joyner, and other girls who are suffering across the country, we as mentors stand in solidarity with our school counselors and social workers. You matter.