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Streetwise Educators Teach Life's Gritty Lessons

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As he's done at hundreds of schools before, Charles "Poncho" Brown empties his visual aids onto a table--a tangle of needles, crack pipes, and inhalant canisters.

Mr. Brown tells the students at a suburban Boston high school about his friends who overdosed on drugs and how he frittered away much of his youth as a gang leader, high on heroin. Throughout the two-hour "motivational talk," he warns his young listeners not to follow his example.

"The man upstairs left me alive for a reason--to stop kids from traveling the road I've traveled," he said in an interview last week as he rounded out a statewide speaking tour. "Who better to talk about this life than someone who's been there?" said the 45-year-old, who works as a substance-abuse coordinator in Boston when he's not touring schools.

Mr. Brown is representative of a legion of speakers who appear on the school-lecture circuit. For years, recovering alcoholics and drug abusers have been warning students about the gritty realities of addiction. Now, in classrooms across the country, it's increasingly common for former gang members to denounce violence and preach the importance of conflict resolution.

School officials struggling to address the alarming rise in juvenile violence and drug use often turn to such "real life" educators to hammer home prevention messages. Experts estimate that these speakers visit thousands of classrooms every year and say that such appearances are growing in popularity.

These lecturers are mostly referred to school officials by their colleagues or by local community groups that compile lists of potential classroom speakers. While the presenters sometimes charge fees to address parents or community organizations, the majority speak at schools for free or for $100 to $200 honorariums.

But education researchers and school officials are divided over whether the streetwise lecturers have a significant beneficial effect on young people's behavior.

Many respected violence-prevention and drug-education experts champion these unorthodox classroom speakers. Their candid stories of personal travails often have the clout that teachers and parents may lack, these experts say.

Others, however, are dubious about whether ex-gang members are the best peddlers of peace, and whether former drug users are the ideal messengers of clean living.

Some critics even go so far as to suggest that their presence in the classroom might lure vulnerable adolescents into a reckless lifestyle.

While no formal research has been done to assess the effectiveness of such guest lecturers in reducing violent behavior or substance abuse among young people, many experts in the field say similar efforts have shown promising results.

Students Against Driving Drunk, a Marlboro, Mass.-based group that enlists students to educate their peers about the hazards of drinking and driving, has been effective in changing student behavior, experts say.

The group recently commissioned an evaluation of the 15-year-old program, which has 22,000 chapters in middle and high schools nationwide. It found that students in schools with a SADD chapter were significantly less likely to drink and drive than those in schools without such a program.

And Alcoholics Anonymous, a pioneer among peer-help groups, has helped 2 million adult alcoholics stop drinking, according to a spokesman for the organization.

Many AA chapters have been extending this peer-education effort to the younger generation by dispatching young recovering alcoholics into middle and high school classrooms. And while there is no research to prove it, Mary, a 24-year-old recovering alcoholic who visits schools in the Washington area, asserts that students learn more about the hazards of drinking from her than from any textbook or teacher. (Alcoholics Anonymous policy prevents members from disclosing their surnames.)

Talking Their Talk

Although their evidence is anecdotal, many violence-prevention experts also are convinced that bringing an element of authenticity into the classroom can be a powerful anti-violence strategy.

Franklin Tucker, the director of the National Center to Rehabilitate Violent Youth, based in Washington, frequently invited former prison inmates into the classroom to work with students when he was an administrator of an alternative school in Boston. "You don't often have a teacher that can get down with kids and talk their language," Mr. Tucker said.

Sheneya Allen, an 8th grader at Timilty Middle School in Boston, agrees. The school invited Poncho Brown to deliver a speech on drugs and gangs to her class last fall, and students are still talking about it, she said. "A lot of older people try to chastise you who've never been through it," said the 14-year-old. "Poncho makes you think about things 'cause he knows something about it," she said.

Barbara Lake, the principal of West Athens Elementary School in South Central Los Angeles, said she is committed to bringing "authentic voices" into the classroom. "In our community, kids live with gangs everyday," Ms. Lake said. "For us not to acknowledge that gangs are part of their lives is negligent," she said.

To that end, she recently added a new book series to her 5th grade curriculum.

Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence is a collection of eight hardcover books written by Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the co-founder of the Crips, the notorious Los Angeles gang. Mr. Williams, 42, who was convicted of murder and is now on death row in California's San Quentin state prison, said he wrote the series to help combat the epidemic of gang violence that he helped to foster.

The books talk, in straightforward language, about the abuse of power in gangs and the need for community and self-respect. Stark color photographs of guns and young gang members illustrate every other page. Words like "gangbanger" and "homeboy" are defined in the glossary.

Dozens of local parents have already called to find out how to get copies of the series, Ms. Lake said. And as a result of a slew of publicity on the gang-leader-turned-author, the books' New York City publisher, the Rosen Publishing Group, has been fielding hundreds of orders since the books were released last month.

Glamorizing Behavior?

But many educators say that former gang leaders and drug users, however repentant, are the wrong people to proselytize to students about avoiding or overcoming bad behavior.

"A person who has been addicted to drugs is not the person to talk about how not to use drugs," said Marcus Motley, the assistant director for substance-abuse-prevention and -education programs for the District of Columbia public schools.

These classroom speakers often glamorize drug use by showing students they can survive addiction and still be successful, Mr. Motley argued.

Celebrity speakers are especially damaging, he said, because they inadvertently send a message to students that young people can weather a period of drug use and still become rich and famous.

Even supporters of these real-life speakers say they will only have an impact if the classroom discussions are skillfully crafted and integrated into a larger plan.

The content of a speaker's talk is the key to altering student behavior, said Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, a professor of public-health practice at Harvard University and a prominent violence-prevention expert.

Personal stories can enhance a violence-prevention effort only if the lecturers concentrate on the downside--not the glamour--of their former lifestyle, Dr. Prothrow-Stith said. The talk should also present concrete strategies for students to avoid violent confrontations, she said.

"Sharing the dirty side of violence, the story nobody tells, can help tremendously if they talk about their pain and the strategies they used to stay out of trouble," she said.

A consistent message throughout the school year is also a necessary ingredient for success, said Margaret Beaudry, the research director of Drug Strategies, a nonprofit research group based in Washington.

While these speakers may be a positive addition, she said, one or two visits by a charismatic person are insufficient to give students the skills they need to reject drugs or resist gang membership over the long term.

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