“He’s a smart student.”
“He’s a thug.”
“He’s incredibly empathetic and respectful.”
“He just runs the streets.”
These are all descriptions you will hear adults and peers say about a sixth-grade boy enrolled in the Collaborative Learning After School Program (CLASP), a Family & Children’s Place out of school program at Meyzeek Middle School in downtown Louisville. Let’s call him Derek.
Last year, school officials caught Derek with a BB gun at school. While it was a BB gun – still a serious violation of rules and unacceptable – it didn’t take long for rumors to take control of the story and spin it into something far more serious. Derek now was the kid who brought a gun to school. He was trouble, and bore watching.
When this happened, Derek was living with his father, who lived close to the school but had all but given up on trying to lead his son down the right path. “He don’t listen to nobody,” Derek’s father said. “I am just going to let him live his life.”
Frustrated, Derek’s father eventually sent him to live with his mother, who unlike his father, did not live within walking distance of school. And unlike his father, Derek’s mother didn’t make it a priority for her son to even attend school.
Derek started missing school days here and there, eventually missing eight consecutive days. But there was no notice of his absences or any kind of school contact. Most disappointing – no one seemed to notice, and certainly not care.
CLASP staff tried multiple times to reach his mother, all ending without success. And although Derek was in violation of Kentucky’s truancy laws, no one at the school seemed to be interested in doing anything – to see if he was OK, to get him back to school.
During Derek’s absences, a CLASP and school peer texted him, asking what was going on and encouraging him to return to school and to the out of school program. Derek sent back a terrifying text: “I can’t. The streets got me.”
Think about that. “The streets got me.” An 11-year-old sucked already into street culture – gangs, violence, truancy, and in a neighborhood – Smoketown – already plagued by high crime, high unemployment, and high dropout rates from school.
Finally, Derek returned to school, but on that day CLASP site supervisor Bobby Cortes saw him sitting in the school’s Youth Services Center, looking sullen and detached. Bobby began a conversation with Derek that concluded with Bobby promising that, “If you feel like you’re ever in too deep, you can come to us and we will help.”
Derek, who had been sitting head down, eyes to the floor, looked up with an expression Bobby could only describe as being somewhere between “thank you” and “how did you know?”
A few days later, though, another CLASP student shared a story that bullets had fallen out of one of Derek’s pockets at school that day, A CLASP staff member overheard the exchange and informed Bobby about what she had heard as the students were leaving the program that day.
Concerned but unable to speak with Derek about what had happened, Bobby reached out to Robbie Fenwick, interim director of CLASP, to share the information and get some guidance. Robbie directed Bobby to do all he could to get in touch with Derek’s father or mother to inform them, and then to notify the school the first thing next morning.
After numerous attempts, Bobby was unable to reach Derek’s father or mother, so he decided to go to Derek’s father’s house ( Derek was back living with him) to try to speak with him. This was at 10 at night, an unusual act, but a committed, desperate attempt to help Derek.
Bobby spoke to Derek’s father about the bullet incident, and then talked with Derek in the kitchen. As Derek and Bobby talked, Derek’s father was in a nearby room playing Xbox®, and his father’s girlfriend was in another room watching television.
As they talked, Derek admitted to Bobby that he was surrounding himself with all the wrong influences. Bobby says that Derek’s admission sounded like a young man with no options – hard to hear from a child who could benefit greatly from CLASP, which provides structured activities that help students develop positive values, social competencies and positive identities. Activities include homework help, life skills development, enrichment activities and service learning projects.
Recently, Derek’s attendance in school has improved, but he has not participated in CLASP for more than a week. Bobbie, Robbie and the CLASP team, however, haven’t and won’t give up on Derek.
“If we aren’t there for him, who will be?” asks Bobby.