On the one hand we’ve all read the headlines depicting out of control teens either spoiled, living in a world with no consequences, suffering from the trumped up “affluenza” that ends in them doing drugs, drinking, getting behind the wheel intoxicated, causing accidents, killing people, dropping out of school, becoming pregnant, being wild and practically destined for a prison sentence, or the kids from horrible neighborhoods, no parents, engulfed in gangs, violence, drugs, finally succumbing to the undertow. Likewise we are familiar with the concept surrounding youth boot camps, troubled youth facilities run similar to military style, carrying the same institutional markers as prison, drug rehab meant to steer kids back onto the right track; decade after decade contenting ourselves these wayward young people had the opportunity to redeem, make something of themselves, learn from their mistakes. On the other hand many of us remember the rash of horror stories from the 90’s, early 2000’s spotlighting, boot camps, wilderness survival camps for troubled youth gone wrong, gone way past too far resulting in the death of participants stemming from malnourishment, heat exhaustion, related element exposure, sheer exhaustion due to sudden amount of exertion forced on them. Causing people to renounce such extreme tactics as helpful to delinquent youth, even programs like Beyond Scared Straight not subjecting teens to long term contact with real life prisoners, spending no more than a few hours to one night in a jail cell as part of a reform program. Nor is the military any stranger to correcting the deviant behavior of young people; again for decades those facing serious trouble were giving the option of jail or military enlistment. Parents of 17-year-olds mandated to sign a permission form, so it is no surprise to hear about the National Guard’s Youth Challenge Academy, chapters across the country. CBS News chronicling Sothern California’s facility and the current crop of transforming cadets; but it’s hearing their stories, learning how they got there, the problems they face combined with the school’s literal drill sergeant tactics plus clear issues not covered in the program that spawned the question above. Further looking at their difficulties is this the best place for them, is this the best place to confront their issues versus counseling, drug treatment, other alternative schools focused on mental health, life skills as well as academics?
The first thing that stands out about Sunburst, the southern California chapter of youth challenge, and their current group of participants is the number of poor, minority teens participating, persons admittedly dropped off by friends, neighbors who don’t have parents relatives to care about and take care of them; those who have at least one, parent, a designated legal guardian, persons without money, resources, opportunities or knowledge regarding different programs that might better suit their needs sans the militaristic aspects. Participation is notably completely voluntary and not a recruitment tool for the military, but how truly voluntary is it when it looks like your only option, when it’s the only thing being put on the table, when you’ve already been expelled from your former high school or when a parent says do this or get out of my house? Secondly striking, how much their problems are not their fault and what no amount of social conditioning will fix; teens combating homelessness, absentee parents, no father, no mother in their lives, worse a revolving door of inconsistency here today, gone tomorrow, teens who have struggled at home to find their basic needs, who are doing drugs to cope with things no one should be made to cope with, who joined a gang because they had no one else. A program making promises it can’t keep to exactly the kind of people we can’t afford to make such knowingly empty promises to, those who don’t have anything to lose, those who have lost a great deal already buying into the concept of the straight and narrow, doing it societies way; a program filling teens heads with the promise, in addition to making them healthier and wiser, they will help them graduate high school, give them skills to go out there and get a job enabling them to take care of themselves. Boasting 80% go on to college or employment; proving it isn’t about helping young people face their demons, creating happy, healthy, whole human beings who will, because of the former, be productive in society rather about ensuring they fulfill the social contract finish school, attend post-secondary education, hold a job, avoid criminality independent of the means it took to get there, the tangible possibility of not just bringing out hitherto untapped potential in these next generation misfits but adding to the psychological, emotional scars they already have too many to bear. Engendering public comment as follows asking in part-“Second chance? When was their FIRST chance? Homeless, no fathers in home, lousy public schools. You won’t see any rich white kids here. No they get sent to schools in Switzerland, boarding schools…This is just OUTRAGEOUS! These national guardsman have no clue how to reach troubled teenagers! What will happen to the kids who “don’t graduate?” Put them straight into jail?” [Sic] Proving again we coddle ourselves in the belief of a second chance, content to say the mistakes belong to the teens, never improving first chances, fundamental questions like where was social services when one cadet and her mother were sleeping in cars, under freeways and she was couch hopping until she couldn’t keep up at school dropping out? Certainly you can increase odds of success in school, employment when it involves supposed character flaws instilling responsibility, the importance of showing up on time, being where you say you will be when you say you will be, as opposed to limited transportation, no transportation, the confines of bus schedules. Actually doing work tasks, completing work tasks as instructed, doing your homework, remembering to turn it in, but when it comes to imparting true skill meant to give an edge in the job market, at best they will put them on the same level playing field as the other disaffected, disenfranchised roughly 3 million high school graduates and slightly over 1.5 million college degree holders similarly seeking a job who can’t find one either. At worst they’ve given them false hope they can do things thought beyond the grasp, taught them they can overcome things not necessarily possible, i.e. criminal record barring them from Pell grant funds wiping out almost any hope of college, convinced them they can go for long forgotten dreams when odds say they will end up working minimum wage like everyone else who graduated college and the reverberating theme is now what, like everyone else from their old school, their old neighborhood who didn’t get into the same trouble. For all we know the application process excludes anyone with an actual adult criminal record already defeating the purpose denying help to those most desperately seeking it.
Structurally youth academy’s program has holes to no end, functions non-conducive to long term success started in lo and behold some individuals don’t respond well to drill sergeant style screaming or their reaction isn’t the one desired; individuals for whom you remind them of their abusive father, uncle whoever, you chance provoking a violent response getting you hurt and them expelled from the program. Total shut down is another potential reaction where the person freezes unable to hear instruction, instinctively cowers in fear of being hit; outside possible abusive pasts, there are people who when exposed to that yelling, chaotic environment become flummoxed, flustered, nervous, fearful are apt to make more mistakes because of how you are delivering directives, commands and instructions. Result, possible elimination from the program and another failure add to a long list perpetuating the vicious cycle predicated on our obsession with the ideal of whom and what attributes we consider to be good, solid in character, worth emulating, our notions on masculinity, toughness, what we have convinced our-self works with at risk, troubled kids; whether statistics, practical observation any measurement bears that out or not. What happens when, yes you’re dealing with overall young, healthy if out of shape, teens begin getting stress fractures, muscle tears brought on by too much too fast? Instances we have seen on shows like The Biggest Loser; are they summarily ignored because pushing them until they cry, vomit, are on the verge of passing out is what “works?” And sure let’s give them tendentious making them do all that marching, jumping jacks, pushups and obstacle courses, that’s helpful and healthy. Next youth challenge parameters and student goals don’t line up; one enrolled there to learn to cope with hatred toward key individuals, another wants to learn to fail and that be ok. Hold on, they aren’t teaching anger management techniques, more apt to foster it with their approach, nor are they doing anything to get to the root of that anger, usually an absent parent causing them to feel abandoned, showing them, getting them to a place of not needing their parent to see their accomplishments for them to matter, finding another reason to stay on the right path. They have apparently zero mechanisms to deal with justifiable anger stemming from physical, sexual, mental, emotional abuse and its effects, topics all better addressed in counseling; on the contrary the only thing they are doing is teaching cadets to bottle up their anger, their feelings period for fear of the barking drill sergeant, for fear of reprisal, punishment as opposed to confronting their feelings, constructively handling them. This is absolutely no place to fail, no place to learn to properly, constructively cope with failure; instead this is exactly the type of place that will force you to do thing X over and over until you cease to fail. More importantly who told the young girl she could not fail, where did she pick up that message her parents, society at large? Also students possess no real insight into their own behavior merely parroting what adults have told them is wrong with them; one young man stating on the day he turned 13 he decided to become a careless teenager, the day he tuned 14 he became a delinquent going on to describe the fights he got into his freshman and sophomore years, how close he came to being expelled, arrested. Staff are identically prone to the same lacks in insight mirrored in the story of Cadet Adjekai Stewart; doubtlessly aiding the journalist in compiling a window into the student they see comparing her hesitation in a trust fall, self-esteem exercise to the hesitation in life. Though hesitant doesn’t usually become an adjective used to depict a teen experimenting with drugs and alcohol, “allowing it to take over her life,” her words or her “brash” decision to attempt suicide; impulsive, maybe explosive, self-destructive being far more common words employed. It isn’t that humans can’t be complex, a bundle of contradictions at any given moment, both attributes can’t coexist, especially in the mass of hormones known as a teenager, it’s that that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening here; what’s happening here is their being broken down to obey, to respect at all costs and being made vulnerable to listen, take in the negative things said about their behavior. A gamble enough interacting with at risk kids; unconscionable when the assessment is way off base and no one wants to take the time to address the root cause of low self-esteem, tackle potential mental illness, teach cadets about their emotions, constructive ways to express them provide true, lasting guidance, facilitate needed conversation between students and people who have profoundly hurt them, provide an attempt at closure, resolution, again things better done by a trained counselor over just drill exercises and academic classes. Could they be screening out those with mental health issues, known emotional problems continuing to deny help to teens needing it most? Never mind the trust fall, self-esteem exercise involved climbing 3 stories and jumping to a zip-line like bar feet away meaning her fear, hesitation makes perfect sense; multitudes suffer from a fear of heights and nearly everyone has a sensible fear of same unwilling to needlessly engage in such things for their own safety. The kind of common sense that prevents you from getting killed, imagine that.
Unfortunately for attendees, youth challenge’s flaws don’t end there; it holds no understanding, respect, comprehension of how tired, beaten down these kids already are by life; they don’t need tough love, which is by its very definition an inaccurate oxymoron, they need physically, emotionally safe environments where their basic needs are met, where they can access school supplies and materials to do their work, don’t have a laundry list of problems intruding on their focus, can access help via teachers, tutors, parents someone to explain things they don’t understand, counseling, medication for mental illness, life skills training where applicable. Only a fraction of which are they getting attending Sunburst; a16 year old discovering why his life went wrong told reporters you gotta look ahead and it’s not really easy to look ahead when you don’t know how to, when nobody’s really taught you how to. It’s also very hard to look ahead when today takes all your energy, when it’s all you can do to think about survival today, where you’re going to sleep tonight, where your next meal is coming from, worrying about getting home from school, being harassed by the local gang, because you are not affiliated with anyone. Realities begging the question, who of their students joined a gang less because they wanted to, and more as a neighborhood survival skill; puts said affiliation in a totally different light doesn’t it? You can’t feasibly look years ahead when you have to look hours ahead going through what you will do if you get home and dad is on a bender, mom is high, you have to intercept any money they get to pay the electric, keep the gas on, lie to the landlord about the rent, protect your younger siblings. Or when there’s nothing to look ahead to but more of the same because you know you can’t afford college, you are too worried about living today, sick parents, bills, spotty utilities in your crappy building to make good enough grades to qualify for a scholarship, you’re either not good at sports or don’t possess the transportation reliability to make it to practice. Equally questionable, this, this is the best place for a teens like Adjekai Stewart, using drugs and alcohol to cope with something, who tried to kill themselves, are we serious? The best trust, confidence, self-esteem builder you can come up with is something that if it goes wrong, should the safety equipment fail you succeed in grievously injuring a minor placed on your care? Similarly you wonder what accumulation of life events, sudden event caused the young man to become a careless teen on his 13th birthday, delinquent is a title society gave him after getting in trouble so much by 14; you wonder what caused him to get into so many fights his freshman and sophomore years and what would have happened if his school had taken the approach adopted by one middle school to bullying, helping bullies solve their problems to eliminate behavior. Lo and behold one stopped shoving his fellow students into lockers, hmmm; sadly same thing could have worked here without the yelling, screaming, hard ass drill sergeant, if only someone had thought to. Responding to a parent after seeing their child again several weeks in who talked about seeing a young woman where before he saw a confused kid, we return to this is the best place, the best solution to aid a confused teen???? Other emphasis includes the value of teamwork, fellow classmates that believe in you reiterated in the classroom, group projects and so forth; meaning you condition them to depend on a team, form bonds at least with fellow platoon mates, especially for someone who up to that point may have been a loner, and in 5 months take that all away. In 5 months they have to go home without the support system built at the academy facing all the things, their training, education, reconditioning didn’t cover; how fast can you say epic fail? Marching in unison, wearing monochrome outfits, learning to spit shine boots and do up a bunk the way only the military can all while a drill sergeant spends 80% of their time screaming in your face whether they are reprimanding you or giving you instructions won’t counteract the disappointment felt by the angry young man whose mother didn’t show on family day, the students who had to watch as the majority of their classmates had someone show up for them on family day, happy to see how far they’ve come and there’s no one for you. Marching in unison, wearing monochrome outfits learning to spit shine boots and do up a bunk the way only the military can all while a drill sergeant spends 80% of their time screaming in your face whether they are reprimanding you or giving you instructions won’t fill the void of an absent, missed parent the way a mentor would, even a life coach; surviving the confidence, self-esteem exercise desensitizes them, not builds confidence within them. Highlighting another viewer comment “Let me get this straight: These teenagers dropped out because they had issues at home, issues that were not their fault, and they are sent to a military camping instead to mental counseling, or receive love?…”
Academically it’s something of the same story; you question if National Guard personnel are qualified to teach high school subjects; better still, do they pass the litmus test of being able to engage students who are struggling academically, utterly disinterested in subject matter. Force can only go so far achieving nothing for the kid who gets such poor grades due to a learning disability, be it mild developmental delay or specific diagnoses like dyslexia, a kid so far behind they can barely read therefore need years to catch up not months. Neither perhaps caught until they began youth challenge owing to chaotic lives, constant moves, overcrowded schools and preconceived notions about minority kids, kids from that neighborhood, poor kids, or does youth challenge screen out those kids thus denying help once more to those who need it most? Listeners wonder why one girl didn’t care, was falling asleep in class, allowed to fall asleep in class when she bothered to attend at all; is it the failing schools embodied in the viewer comment above as opposed to teachers simply set in their ways, sounding like professor Binns from Harry Potter? Deeper conundrum, is she on to something larger than herself in that it behooves all these kids not to care meaning they are then never disappointed? Disappointment they are being set for when/if, even though they are currently attending a facility housing an accredited high school, the credits won’t transfer to their regular school at home nullifying all their hard work. They go back to regular school and are stuck in the same dysfunctional, for them, system, teachers who don’t teach the same way they did during youth challenge landing them right back where they started. Oh they have required study sessions and a place to do it; unhampered by all the chaos at home, following the teamwork philosophy they’ve actually been able to make some friends, find a study buddy that understands math better than they do, helped them pass computer class, edits their English papers. And in 5 months you maroon them back home where none of that exists; just as, despite unwavering success at youth challenge, prior bad grades, years of them dashes any chance at scholarships to attend post-secondary education, uh oh. Long term success has just become a pipe dream. On the flip side, it’s quite unsurprisingly amazing what kids can do when you give them the tools to do so; they either are only doing straight academics as opposed to building a solar system, volcano for science class, interview someone for this project, or are given the subsequent supplies choices needed to complete the work versus at home where there may not be money for things like that. They had access not only to teachers presumably used to teaching difficult, behind kids, library materials, but tutors as well. Tutors who are on site, available between X and X hours contrasting home, kids who had to take the bus home making after school aid impossible, kids who were required to watch younger siblings while parents worked; they don’t have figure out how to get to the public library, with no money, for computer access because they don’t have one at home, be it research for a paper or basic word processing, spreadsheet, PowerPoint. Simultaneously unsurprisingly amazing what kids can do when they aren’t mandated to spend so much time searching out their basic needs; facts the principle at Southern California’s chapter of youth challenge academy commented on, kids not burdened by where they will get food clothes, showers, heat and air conditioning respectively. Impressive yet not what can be accomplished by individuals labeled screw ups, when fights with mom or dad are miles away at home, the gang, the neighborhood, are miles away at home, there is no one you care about in your ears comparing you to your messed up parent, your addicted sibling or telling you, you won’t amount to anything.
Sergeants running the program aren’t all completely mean exterior and seem genuinely well intentioned, have soft hearts but can’t let students see it because that is not on the agenda, undermines the persona; too bad the road to hell is paved with good intentions. One sergeant commenting on their regimented approach saying: “I’m going to control everything in your environment until you get on track;” except that kind of control doesn’t work even for adults forget teens who haven’t fully discovered who they are. Many military service members come back from postings experiencing extreme difficulty adjusting to civilian life; apart from physical injuries, traumatic brain injury, PTSD among only a few ailments plaguing service members landing them in homelessness, joblessness or jail, they have no idea how to order their own lives without someone telling them what to do and when to do it. They can’t cope in a world, in a job without that military precision, and why on earth would we want to do that to teenagers? Not to mention the level of control used feeds the compulsive side of addiction, exacerbates conditions like OCD, obsessive personality disorders; things again paralleled in The Biggest Loser and the constant who stirred up huge controversy losing too much weight after the show; a contestant who showed clearly obsessive tendencies toward extremes, who went from obsessing about her boyfriend to obsessing over healthy eating and exercise. Something else we should think twice about doing to teenagers; better to teach them to manage distractions, TV, video games, friends, social media. Program administrators realizing that’s not the core problem with these particular young people; their problems stem from difficult pasts, rough upbringings and absent parents. So one of two things predictably happens once the teens leave youth challenge, either without the fear of a screaming drill sergeant constantly in their face keeping them on the straight and narrow they go right back to their old ways, alternatively they are become regimented in the extreme squandering their remaining youth unable to enjoy the fun they can have, afraid to engage in spontaneity, going to bed at 9:00 like someone’s grandmother. Speaking of returning home, many are fearful of doing so, afraid of erasing the gains they have made, program organizers say it’s because they don’t know what to do with success have never achieved anything in their life, even fight it because they don’t know what success should feel like. Fear you see mirrored in prisoners who have been inside so long they don’t know how to function anywhere else, fear mirrored in drug and addiction rehab who don’t know how to go back to the real world. Because unlike the druggie, the inmate who can avoid old neighborhoods and old friends, these kids can’t and what Sunburst didn’t do is teach them how to deal with anything but themselves. Yet if these kids are to be successful in the long run, for the long haul you not only have to change the students, the cadets, you have to change the home dynamics as much as possible too. Whether that’s parents setting appropriate boundaries that weren’t in place before or stopping more destructive parenting methods; during the home pass portion of youth challenge we discover the origin of at least some of cadet Crista Hopkins problems; her father Chris, who is not actually biologically related to her, when she began messing up in school started comparing her to her mother, telling her she was going to end up just like her which became a self-fulfilling prophecy. While you applaud the man for stepping up to raise a child that isn’t his own, for being there when the biological parents fled the scene, he has to realize how destructive his words are and find new ways of communicating his concern; tasks for a family counselor not youth challenge. Sunburst’s final epic fail is told through the eyes of one of the school’s counselors about a former student who was in a gang went through the program, returned home, was keeping his head down, attempting to graduate and leave that environment only to be killed when found by his former gang. This slightly over one minute clip last of the 3 above epitomizes both the limitations of the program and exactly what is wrong with it; why didn’t Sunburst work with the local police to get that student out of that gang as safely as it could possibly be done rather than accepting his application, turning him out to fend for himself upon completion when police have taskforces dedicated to extracting those who want to leave the gang life, certainly in California. This is the only hope for troubled young people, god help us all.