The following is by Vonda Viland, principal of Black Rock Continuation High School in Yucca Valley in California’s Mojave Desert, and subject of the new film The Bad Kids, which premieres on Independent Lens March 20 at 10pm [check local listings]. Viland’s tireless work to help at-risk teenagers find their way to graduation is reflected both in the film and in the fact that Black Rock High School was recently designated as a Model Continuation High School by the state of California. Viland writes today to give us her perspective and to select 10 (among many) students with powerful stories. [Note: To protect the students, no real names are used and we don’t use any photographs for them; instead we’ve woven in images from The Bad Kids, but rest assured the students Viland talks about here are quite real.]


By Vonda Viland

I don’t believe there is a child out there who wakes up each morning, saying “I want to fail today.” In my 30 years in education, I have not met one student who wants to be a failure. So often we turn on the news or open up a newspaper to hear of another study, touting how our kids are failing. They are failing to pass the standardized tests, failing at keeping up with other countries throughout the world, failing at being good citizens, committing crimes, bullying, skipping school. These commentaries drive me crazy as I have a different perspective than legislators and reporters, as I truly believe in most cases it’s society that’s failing, not the kids. It’s the familial structure, the educational system, the government, failing these kids.

I don’t believe there is a child out there who wakes up each morning, saying “I want to fail today. I want to ruin my parents’ or my teachers’ days.” In my 30 years in education, I have not met one student who wants to be a failure.

So why then are we seeing a decrease in attendance and graduation rates, an increase in discipline rates, an increase in depression, anxiety and suicide rates among kids? The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration announced that 11 percent of adolescents across the U.S. had a major depressive episode in the last year; that’s roughly 2.7 million adolescents in the nation, and according to the June 2016 edition of HIDI Health Stats, there has been a nearly 900 percent increase in suicide ideation among children and adolescents. Suicide is the second largest reason for death in teenagers.

My presumption is we are seeing these statistics of failure because of the trauma these students have to endure on a daily basis.

I see it each day at my job at Black Rock High School, an alternative school for kids who have “failed” at the traditional school, or for kids the traditional school system has failed. We have 121 students on our rolls each day. When one leaves us, another joins. There is a waiting list of at least 50 students at any given time. And each one of these kids needs to be with us for some reason, each one has a traumatic story.

There are the students who come from divorced homes or whose parents are in jail, or are drug addicts or alcoholics, students who live with their grandparents because their parents abandoned them or We have to find a way to work together and give these kids the tools they need to break the pattern. are unable to care for them, or abuse them. There are the students who are homeless or have to work to support their families, or care for siblings, or who are parents themselves. The students who have been sexually abused, who have AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases, who suffer from physical or mental disability, from depression and anxiety, sometimes so suicidal that they struggle just to get out of bed, or who self-inflict wounds, so they can control something in their lives.

These are my kids, these are our kids, in all high schools across America, and not one of these students in my assessment is “failing.” They didn’t choose to be in their situations, and often don’t have the skills or the ability to choose another path on their own.

And that is where we as educators and mental health providers must come into the picture.  We have to find a way to work together and give these kids the tools they need to break the pattern. These kids are demanding help, but most people in society — educators included — are not hearing their cries.

When there is something wrong with one’s head, the body sends out signals, giving one a headache, saying something must be done so we act quickly to try and relieve the pain or the body escalates until something is done. This is much like an at-risk student. Often they act out to tell us something is wrong, that they are experiencing some form of trauma, and it must be fixed. If it isn’t, they will escalate the behavior until we listen, or until it is too late, and we’ve lost them.

My students stories are heart-wrenching but need to be discussed so we can learn valuable lessons; if we listen to them, we can get an idea of what needs to be done, and develop plans to help others who come after them. Here are some of my most memorable students and their stories to begin the discussion on what we as educators and mental health providers can do to help teachers identify, understand, refer, and handle the trauma these “bad kids” experience.

Sherrie

Sherrie came to us midway through her junior year. She had been sexually abused by her father and then prostituted to his friends since she became a teenager. When she discovered she was pregnant, she finally told a friend, who reported it. Sherrie found the courage to tell her story to the police and help them set up her father and his friends to get the evidence to arrest them. She then had to go to court and relive her trauma four different times. When she got to us, her spirit was gone; she was exhausted from being victimized for so long and from having to relive it for the courts. She struggled with guilt for sending her father to jail and with anger from being victimized. It took me some time, but I finally got her to open up with me and talk about her feelings.

We at Black Rock live in such a rural area that we really do not have very many resources, but thankfully, I had invited a local sexual assault agency to teach a safe dates class to our students once a week. Since they were there, one of their counselors volunteered to stay afterward each week to work with Sherrie.  We also contacted the Indian Health Group, which offers parenting classes to youth in our community, and they agreed to come out and support Sherrie.

Jacianna Powell looks out the window of Black Rock High School.
Black Rock High School student Jacianna Powell, in The Bad Kids

Amy

We embraced Amy and offered all the support we could give her. We worked on her self-hatred and her unrealistic expectations for herself.Amy was a brilliant young lady who was taking advanced placement classes at the high school and was getting straight A’s. How did she come to us? She had attempted suicide twice as her self-esteem was so low that she couldn’t see herself realistically. She was convinced she was ugly and stupid and not good enough. Because she’d been in the hospital, she missed too many days of school and received no credit for her classes, so there was no way she could graduate from her high school. No one there knew why she’d missed school because the family was embarrassed and would talk with no one about it, so she received no support or help from the traditional school. One would think this should be an easy one to get services, but, unfortunately, her parents were unwilling to acknowledge her needs and refused to bring her to the mental health center for treatment. They thought she should just get over it and move on.

Many students encounter no help from their families. It is important that we as educational leaders take the time to lead the reflection and brainstorming that must be done to address the needs of students experiencing suicidal tendencies.

Luckily, our teachers meet weekly to discuss our students and work together to develop a plan. We embraced Amy and offered all the support we could give her. We worked on her self-hatred and her unrealistic expectations for herself. As our school requires our students to complete 75 hours of community service, we convinced her family to allow her to do her service at our local Transitional Age Youth Center, and while she was there, she was able to work with a counselor one-on-one.

Teachers at the traditional middle and high schools need to be trained on how to identify students at-risk. Additionally, if we could connect the mental health centers with the schools to create and provide staff training or materials to help the schools identify the students at-risk, we could help identify a lot of students and would be able to have the teachers direct students to services available to them.

Michael

Michael touched my heart. He came to us with severe anger issues; he’d blow up over small things. Anything would set him off. He’d hit the wall and fracture his hand or wrist. When he wasn’t angry, he was the sweetest boy…helpful, funny, kind, but when he was angry, watch out! Of course, he had been kicked out of the traditional school, and the first time it happened at our school, I went to call his dad, and he started to cry. It turns out, his dad would hit him, yell at him, and belittle him regularly. He was simply living what he had been taught. There has been such an increase of students who struggle with anger that many times, even teachers are frightened and don’t know how to help them or to diffuse their anger.We need to offer anger management classes in all schools, provide training for administrators and teachers on how to diminish students’ anger, instead of escalating it.

Initially, we called CPS [Child Protective Services]. Unfortunately, since he was 17, they did nothing. I met with Michael regularly to let him vent his frustrations before they became outbursts. I worked with him one-on-one on strategies for handling and controlling his anger and met with his dad several times to discuss strategies for working with Michael. I had Michael take a class offered at our school by the Lutheran Social Services on anger management. I had one of our male teachers “adopt” him and act as a mentor and guide for him.

Schools often have no way to handle students with anger issues other than kicking them out of school, which helps no one. We need to offer anger management classes in all schools, provide training for administrators and teachers on how to diminish students’ anger, instead of escalating it, and we need a way to refer families to services without a financial obligation for the schools.

Sergio

Sergio was one of the most intelligent, profound individuals with whom I have ever worked, a soft-spoken young man who read constantly, but would do absolutely no work. Sergio was so shy and his self-esteem so low that he literally disappeared into his books, and because he didn’t cause anyone trouble, traditional schools didn’t notice he was a young man in crisis, and simply failed him. After he was at our school for a couple of credit checks and hadn’t earned very much credit in spite of his homeroom teacher’s guidance and support, I called him to talk. It was hard getting him to talk loudly enough for me to hear what he was saying, and trying to get him to share his thoughts was like pulling teeth. His self-esteem was just too low. His family and teachers in the past had convinced him he was good for nothing and would never amount to anything. That is what they believed, so it was what he believed and lived.

Our staff rallied behind Sergio and worked hard to reinforce his good qualities and ensure him we had faith in him. We broke things into small pieces and guided and commended him as we progressed. Slowly, over time, the power of positivity shined: Sergio made friends, blossomed in school, and graduated.

There is a huge need for self-esteem training for staff members. Teachers often do not know how to identify and handle students who suffer from low self-esteem. If a student is quiet and doesn’t cause any trouble in class, there is a good chance that one will simply go unnoticed until he/she fails.

Black Rock School Principal Vonda Viland poses in front of a school bus and the school's lot on a sunny day
Black Rock School Principal Vonda Viland

Bri and Levi

They could have used help with safe sex before it was too late; and now that it is too late, need help with parenting.Bri came from a family of poverty and neglect. She had six siblings to whom she provided care as her parents simply did not have the skills or inclination to care for them. She longed to escape her home. Levi lived with his single, alcoholic father who paid absolutely no attention to him. Levi was his father’s caregiver who was always having to find a place for them to stay and food for them to eat. He loved his father, but he hated their existence and longed to leave his living conditions. Neither Bri nor Levi participated in anything at the traditional school and failed all their classes. They were just too busy trying to survive. When they met, it was immediate attraction. They became inseparable and eventually Bri got pregnant. They felt they’d finally found their escape.

Bri and Levi bring us many hurdles to address. Students like them need help in breaking the cycle of poverty, neglect, abuse, drug addiction. They could have used help with safe sex before it was too late; and now that it is too late, need help with parenting. 

What we did: First we called in the district nurse to help Bri navigate the system for health care for her and the baby. We are allowed to make those referrals without having to fund the care, so that was an easy one. Then came the hard part. Not only did they need parenting classes, but they really needed to deal with all their personal issues to ensure they would not repeat the cycles of alcoholism, poverty, neglect, codependency. Their issues were deep and needed to be addressed before they became parents.

Cheyenne

A beautiful, striking young lady from outside appearances, Cheyenne carried herself with great dignity, but suffered from severe anxiety. She would often hyperventilate or completely freeze when there was any new situation. When she first attended our intake process, I wasn’t sure she was going to show up at school. She and her mother both begged for independent studies, but I felt strongly she needed to be in school and learn to work with others.

What we did: I notified all of the teachers of Cheyenne’s anxiety and explained to them that if she was feeling anxious, she was free to come to my office at any time. No questions asked. No pass required. When she arrived at my office, I would have her color for a half-hour before I would see her. We found that coloring had a calming effect for students with anxiety. After she colored, I would meet with her and allow her to talk about her fears and dissect her feelings. Within 10 or 15 minutes, she was usually able to return to class. After a while, she no longer needed to see me after her coloring sessions. She would just get the coloring materials, color, and then return to whatever activity the class had been doing. We had taught her a technique that worked for her to calm the anxiety.

In my 30 years in education, I have never seen the number of students as we have now suffer from anxiety and depression. Educators need to be given an understanding why this is happening and what we can do to help. It’s becoming one of the most pervasive problems in education, and we can help students like Cheyenne build resiliency.

Vonda Viland (center) hugs student outside Black Rock High School as students exit the bus

Val

The most delightful girl, Val always volunteered to help. She would spend her free time knitting, and appeared to have friends. From the outside, one would wonder why she was at our school, but Val had a secret: She was a cutter. One day when she and I were talking, she taught me a valuable lesson…and that some issues are just too big for me to even begin to unravel. Val lifted up her shirt and showed me that she’d carved into her stomach the words “Big Fat Ugly Bitch.” My stomach dropped as I tried not to cry. I have seen more students than ever with cutting issues: I currently have four cutters in the school, and that is out of 120 students! Imagine the number at a traditional school. I convinced Val to allow me to call her parents, and thankfully, they contacted our mental health center and got her treatment.

Educators need training on cutters — how to identify, why they do it, how to refer, etc. — and that training first begins by opening the discussion with one’s staff.

Eli

A transgender young man, Eli was so harassed and abused at his high school that he refused to go and hence failed all his classes. He had all the issues that go along with transitioning as well as all the issues related to harassment and bullying. He was gun-shy of people and would stay to himself. Transgender students are becoming more common, and I am hopeful that over time we will not have to deal with issues of bullying or harassment, and we will need to help them solely with their transitions. But we are not there yet.

We embraced and loved Eli. We made no issues at all with him or his identity. We gave him leadership roles and overtly praised him. When the students saw us so welcoming of him, they welcomed him, and it was no issue at all. We also worked closely with an LGBTQIA organization and had him participate in our safe dates, communications, and life skills classes that we arrange at our school.

James

We ensured he had clothing and personal necessities, and we began to parent him, showing we cared and had high expectations for him, that we believed in him.Alone and homeless, James was 18 years old, but had been on his own for a long time. No one at the traditional high school knew, so no CPS report had ever been made. He obviously was not engaged at school, nor could he do homework. He failed all his classes and was referred to us. At his intake, I was able to determine that he couch surfed and didn’t have any family members in the area. There were many nights when he just slept in the desert. He had issues with abandonment and hopelessness. He needed a home, but also greatly needed counseling services and parenting.

Whether a homeless student is by him/herself or with their family, the impact of being homeless is traumatic. Schools need to utilize staff development time to begin an action plan for helping students who are identified as homeless through the schools. We must ask: Are all the homeless students identified? Do we offer services to assist with shelter, food, and personal necessities? Do we offer support services for the homeless to address the trauma of being homeless? Have we ensured all our homeless who qualify have been moved to the AB 216 educational program?

As our nearest homeless shelter is 90 miles away, we needed to deal with James’ immediate needs. We met with one of his friend’s parents and explained that we’d get them gift cards for food if they’d allow James to stay until we could get him accepted and transferred to the homeless home. We ensured he had clothing and personal necessities, and we began to parent him, showing we cared and had high expectations for him, that we believed in him. We guided and nurtured him. His was a great success story as the family who first allowed him to stay decided he could continue to live with them. They helped him find a job, and he eventually graduated with us under AB 216.

So Many More Kids

I feel it’s important for you to put a face to the problem and hear the kids’ stories, which are endless. There is Matt who has been in and out of juvenile hall. Xavier who has to work to support his family. JaeAnn who lives with her grandmother because her mom is a meth addict. Tamera who is addicted to prescription drugs. Manuel who comes from a true hard-core gang family. Aaron who is a single daddy. Faith who suffers from anorexia. JaCianna who cares for her younger siblings. And there is Joey.  You will meet or have met these students and others through the documentary The Bad Kids. The number of kids affected by trauma is honestly staggering. They need us. They need you.

Postscript: Teachers and “Triage”

Educators are at ground zero. They see the trauma these kids experience each day, and they need help.

Most schools do not have trained counselors for these issues as most school counselors only work with scheduling and academic counseling. If you work in education, I hope you will keep these students’ faces in your minds and hearts as you work to discuss strategies to meet these students’ needs. If we don’t find a way to address the issues at school age, we will end up having to deal with even more severe issues at a later date, or it will be too late, and we will lose a lot of really wonderful people. 

When most of us feel like giving up on a student, there is always one of us that says, “Well…what if we try this or what if we try that…”These kids and hundreds like them come through our doors each year. The filmmakers accurately described my job as triage: Teachers and I go from one trauma to the next, and it is physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting. We often get asked how we maintain such a positive attitude about the kids and life. The flippant answer is we drink…a lot… But seriously, the thing that keeps us going the most is we absolutely believe in the power of positive thinking and the fresh start we give ourselves and our kids each day. Knowing we can make a difference keeps us going.

We also rely on each other a lot. Teachers meet for a half hour at the end of each day to vent and then look for solutions for the next day. We meet formally each week to talk about each student and brainstorm strategies to meet their needs. I truly believe these daily and weekly sessions are a big factor in our success as it is good to be able to vent our frustrations and it is good to know there will always be someone there to pick us up when we are losing steam. When most of us feel like giving up on a student, there is always one of us that says, “Well…what if we try this or what if we try that…” It is so important for people in our line of work to find their posse as life is so much better with a posse!

I also believe that it is very important to have balance in one’s life. I insist my staff members leave work at a decent hour. A wise person once told me the work will always fill the amount of time you give it, so I tell my teachers to work hard but know when to walk away. Burnout is just too prevalent in our line of work. We must keep reasonable hours and look at the long game. I bake and hike. Others do art, or restore old cars, one coaches at another school, another devotes time to her little ones. Oprah Winfrey said it best, “You can’t fill other’s cups until you fill your own.”

I am grateful you were willing to give of your time to start the conversation on how to help our at-risk deal with the trauma in their lives. I am confident that together if we keep the lines of communication open, we can find a solution.

The Bad Kids is a story about my kids. You will recognize the stories and know the students. We at BRHS are not unique; any school in any community could have been the subject of this film. I hope the film is used to further the discussion with your communities, your mental health centers, and your schools on what we can do to help. Simply put, something must be done before it is too late.


Vonda Viland’s book Lessons from the Bad Kids [available on Amazon and other booksellers] is also a way to jump start the discussion, especially for new teachers and for school’s just beginning the discussions on how to best work with these students. Vonda told us, “Upon request, activities are available for each chapter of the book to help guide staff development.”