‘My Brother’s Keeper’ helps minority boys, needs family support

As President Obama gathers leaders to the table Thursday to discuss the new 'My Brother's Keeper' initiative to help keep minority boys in school and out of prison, one mom realizes that parents need to have a seat at the table to make it work.

Jim Mone/AP
President Barack Obama is meeting with leaders in the education and non-profit sectors to discuss his new 'My Brother's Keeper' initiative, which will aim to disarm zero-tolerance school discipline policies and help keep minority boys out of prison. In this photo, President Obama speaks at the Union Depot in St. Paul, Minn., Wednesday, Feb. 26.

President Barak Obama brings stakeholders in the $200 million “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative to the table Thursday to assist young men and boys of color. 

Parents should be eyeing a seat at that table, as that is the place from which they can ensure both the end of "zero tolerance" policies that have plagued education and the success of our nation’s children.

I applaud the fact that Mr. Obama announced a $200 million commitment from nine foundations to help young men and boys of color, according to Yahoo News.

According to reports, this is a component of a bigger plan to get private businesses, non-profits, and local governments to work in concert to step into the lives of African American and Hispanic boys at key points. 

The plan would focus on providing pre-kindergarten education, lifting third-grade reading proficiency, leading schools away from "zero tolerance" disciplinary policies that kick misbehaving students out of school, and convincing businesses to train and hire young men of color.

I am no fan of “zero-tolerance” policies in schools because they criminalize our kids over minor and often misinterpreted actions.

I am a white woman, with four white sons, and zero tolerance took my eldest son, Zoltan, now 20, out of kindergarten for an entire week when he was little.

We had just moved from a sailboat docked in Florida with no TV to a New Jersey community. It was just after the terrorist attacks of September 11.

On his second day of kindergarten, the principal of the elementary school called to tell me my child was being suspended for “terroristic threats.”

“His teacher asked if he liked Barney – the purple dinosaur – and your child said, ‘I hate Barney! You gotta get a mask and a knife and get rid of him!’ ”

After a long day filled with family services people, clipboards, and a school psychologist, I was finally able to clarify that my child had been raised without TV and “a big purple Barney” was a barnacle, which his father “hates” resulting in him having to put on a dive “mask” and “get rid of the barneys” with a putty “knife.”

It was really touch-and-go for days.

Having read the Juvenile Law Center (JLC) posting from January that talked about the overall damage the “zero-tolerance” policies have done in specifically the African-American community and the broader education system in general, I shudder to think of what it would have been like for my son today had I been an African-American or Hispanic mom trying to explain the Barney mishap.

Would my son have been expelled? Would being marked as a “bad kid” have dogged him and resulted in him being in a jail cell today instead of a college classroom?

These are reasonable questions being asked by people at the highest levels of our government, and I think it’s time more parents, of every race, joined the discussion.

While these policies were meant to prevent guns, drugs, and weapons in schools, instead, they often times have resulted in banishing children from the learning environment for using a finger as a “gun.” 

In a recent report, “A Generation Later: What We’ve Learned About Zero Tolerance in Schools,” the Vera Institute of Justice examined the research on zero-tolerance policies over the past 25 years. The JLC broke down the findings of the study in its own report.

According to the JLC, researchers found that after a generation of this policy, “Zero-tolerance policies are one piece of the epidemic known as the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ – the criminalization of school-based student misconduct that increases the chances that students – especially low-income students of color – will end up involved in the juvenile or criminal justice system.”

At this point, it’s also important to note that no amount of money and policy change will truly make a difference in the lives of our nation’s youth, if the most important stakeholders – parents – are absent from the table.

For all races, charity – giving of our time – begins at home.

Parent and caregivers must show support and let kids know that they have greater expectations for kids than many kids have for themselves.

We also need to make time to mentor kids who are not our own, because in this economic climate many parents are unable to be there to guide and strengthen their kids.

I volunteer by creating free chess programs for the community to bring at-risk kids, mentors, and families together across a game board.

For years, I was frustrated that so many fathers would come to the community center to work out and never set foot in the chess room to see their sons and daughters play.

While dads often encouraged their little girls, they would be very negative about their sons learning the game.

Too often, a father would say right in front of a son, “Don’t bother with him. That game won’t do him any good. He’s not going to be a lawyer or anything.”

I used to get angry, until I took more time to coax dads into the chess room and talked to them about why they had been absent.

Turns out that the dads in question never got the kind of breaks “My Brother’s Keeper” is expected to provide.

Because these fathers deeply love their sons, they often want to spare them the disappointments by managing a son’s expectations of success in school, business, and life.

Once they saw their boys play – and win – these same fathers made it their mission to be there every chance they got.

When the dads took their seat at the table the kids did better at chess, in school, and in the disciplinary area as well.

It seems to me that $200 million will buy a pretty large table, and it’s my hope that Obama leaves seats open and available for parents to be a part of the difference.

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