the lost children of rockdale county
Beth Ross:  Director of Student Services, Rockdale County Schools
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What kind of a place is Rockdale County?

beth ross Rockdale County is a community and for a metropolitan community, it's very small, very close-knit. People know each other within a relatively short period of time being here. I can remember when I first came to Rockdale County running into parents in the grocery store that I had seen in my office or in the schools. And them priding themselves in knowing your name and wanting to talk about their children there, whether it's whether it's in the grocery store or on the ball field. Geographically Rockdale County is very small. It's the second smallest county in the state. And I jokingly say that it takes 20 minutes to drive from one of the county to the other but less time for something that you say to get to the other side of the county. So it's it has a small town feel and it is a small town. And people take a lot of pride in the community. ...

Over the last 20 years there have been an enormous number of people who've come here. Give me a sense of who are the people who have come to Rockdale?

They don't know what the structure is,  what the limits are.  ... Many of the students--no one has ever sat down and specifically said to them, 'this is how far you go.  This is the limits. This is what I will accept from you as appropriate.' The people that have come to Rockdale they are a professional group, possibly even more, by that I mean they are middle income, college-educated, high achievers. They expect a lot of their children in the way of achieving and having more and having better. I think I've seen perhaps that as being on the upward move here. People who want to be outside of metro Atlanta, they want some freedom for their children as well as them as themselves. They don't wanna have to worry about their children every moment of the day. They don't wanna have to worry about whether they can find the groceries they need or the other basic resources. But basically I think it's a more professional group. And probably upper income group of people have come here.

And why have they come here?

I think it's young people who have children or are going to have children. I think they come here for the school system and for the small community. We're very proud of the school system. ... I believe that they come here for their children and I think that based on the age and income of the people who are coming here I think that that's gotta be an important part in why they're moving here. It is a school a community of children. ...We have thirteen thousand students now in the school system. And when I came here there were six thousand students in the school system. And somewhere in the neighborhood of 96 percent of the kids in the community go to the public schools. ...

These are good schools.

They're very good schools. They rank among the top in the state as far as test scores are concerned. We have always been at or above national average in the way our school system ranks compared to other school systems in the state. In ETS or college board scores or SAT. ... We have a number of students who are national merit scholars. Students who go to Ivy League schools and to the better schools in this state. It's I think by far one of the better, we rank always in the top five in the state. ...

You've been a counselor for a long time. What is different about the things you hear the kids saying about their lives now, from when you started in this?

I've been in Rockdale County somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 years. And I don't think any of the basic needs of students have changed. Children don't change. People don't change. The basic needs are there as they always have been.

I think what I hear counselors tell me ... is more a change in a couple of areas. One would be in the resources that the students have. We see more and more students who are members of families where both parents are working or where there is only one parent, a lot of single parent families. ... The counseling that needs to take place with students hasn't changed any more than how to teach reading. But what we do see is that at younger and younger ages counselors are providing services in the way of support groups and counseling even one-on-one at younger and younger ages. It would not be uncommon to be working with middle school students in divorce groups and grief groups and how to get along with your friends groups and how to settle crises and traumas in their lives, when this was more common at high school ten years ago. I think what we see more and more now is even surprise on the part of counselors that students do have some of the needs that they have.

Like what?

They need to be reassured that what they're doing is appropriate or inappropriate. ... Many of the counselors find themselves mentoring students in listening and talking and giving guidance and structure that in some cases the students don't have outside the school setting. Or have a delay in getting some of that structure. Whether it's because the parents are too busy, because there is only one parent. And this is not true in all cases, obviously. It's just a larger and larger percentage of the students are looking at adults in the school setting to meet the needs that they have.

Does that frustrate you?

I think it's very frustrating for counselors... I think what is frustrating ... is that it can be a conflict of interest to them in providing structure for the students when they feel that the parents should be doing a little more of. ... In many cases the counselor actually goes to the parent and tells them that they feel that their students are needing more limits and more structure and more supervision. And that they know some things that's going on with their child that the parents don't know. And initially this is met with a lot of resistance on the part of parents because they don't want another adult to know more about what their child is doing than what they know.

How can it be that a guidance counselor knows more about a child's life than a parent?

... We have counselors, kindergarten through twelfth grade, in this school system. ... By the time a child gets to middle school or even high school, they know what a counselor is for. They know the counselor is there as a guide for them. As a listener. ... Very many of the children are very frustrated. And often find themselves going from one crisis to another and that crisis might be as minor as their friend didn't speak to them in the hallway to as major as knowing that another friend is cheating on a test and they don't know what to do about it. To whether or not to go out with a boy who is 15 and they're 13. And they may find it easier to ask, just because of the access, to ask a counselor that question, than to go home and ask a parent who is coming home from work and very busy.

But those sound like very innocent kinds of crises, the ones you describe. It could be 1940s or 50s whether or not to cheat on a test or whatever. But in fact, isn't it true that the counselors are hearing real crises that these kids are lurching between?

The counselors are hearing real crises from many of the students. They're hearing crises that once again I think is a little frustrating because they don't think that these children should have to deal with the decisions they're actually having to deal with prior to being an adult. And this is not a large percentage of students by any stretch of the imagination. But there are students who come to them with very adult questions who are not emotionally ready to make the kind of decisions that they're making. ...

Like what? Be specific if you would.

Adult questions-- such as whether or not to participate in parties where there is drinking. Parties where there is drug abuse. Parties where there may be persons where there may be children who are much older than them or semi-adults. For example a party where there would be a lot of 14 year olds but there would also be 18 year olds or maybe 20 year olds at the party. Whether or not they should be sneaking out of their house in the middle of the night to go do something without their parents' knowledge. Whether or not they should participate in what they know as illicit behavior. Driving, illegal behavior. Driving without a license. Those kinds of things that really should not, that they really that most adults don't think children should have to deal with until they're older.

We know that this does not apply to a lot of kids, probably a majority of kids--but is there is a problem with the kids in Rockdale County?

I think there are problems with children nationwide in having to make decisions about things that they haven't had any experience with. In Rockdale County, I don't think the children are any different from any other community across the nation. ...

Let's talk about the culture in which these kids are growing up. Their own culture. The culture that surrounds them. Talk about the influence of television on these kids. What they're seeing.

I think television, movies, computer games, the media if you will, had a lot of influence on children. They have access, even by their own computers to things around the entire world. If they're influenced by it, it's probably more in seeing things that they may not have seen otherwise from lots of information that they wouldn't have been able, that they may not know otherwise about relationships.

They see sex. They hear they hear words whether it's curse words or any other kind of words that they have not dealt with before. In the community or in their home. And maybe it seems okay to them because it's there. Because it's on television and they see adults or other children using them. Or it being involved in them. And it's possible that they're somehow getting some permission from movies and from television to do things that they may not otherwise come up with on their own. ...

Among the probably hundred kids we've met and talked to since we've been here, we met in particular two girls who affected us a great deal. Both were cheerleaders throughout their middle school years and in 9th grade, 10th grade, they didn't make the cheerleading team. In my mind, for most kids, not a very traumatic event. But for these particular girls it seemed to be shattering. What is it about the pressure that these kids are under that an event like that could mean so much to them?

... There're probably a couple of issues that are involved here. That individual student may not have something else to fall back on. Something that I find some of the teaching personnel as well as counselors telling me is--they don't feel like students have the inner resources that students had many years ago. By inner resources, I mean the confidence in themselves that failure is okay. And that's part of a learning process.

Many of us as students find ourselves failing or not making a hundred on a test or not being the captain of the cheerleading squad. Or not being the captain of the football team or maybe not even making the football team. So then you go out for baseball or basketball, but many children are so directed to almost a specialization now. And when they fail at that, failure is extremely traumatic for many of our children now.

And when I say resources, I think it's somewhat of a difficult thing to describe that was so taken for granted when we were all children. Maybe I should say when I was a child--things like, it was okay to be by yourself. You didn't have to be with 20 people to feel confident, to feel comfortable with yourself. It's okay to be at home reading. You didn't have to be at the movies with three friends. Those are the kinds of things that we take for granted now. Many of our children are so over- stimulated by the things that go on around them, that they're not comfortable with just being themselves. And in many cases may not even know exactly who they are. But they think that they should know who they are. But it's okay at 14 not to know who you are. But they're not okay with that. ...

Another issue that I have found, or, that maybe I should say that I think the personnel in the school that work more directly with the kids have found--is that the parents do ask a lot of them in asking them to be number one. It's important to be the valedictorian and if you can't be the valedictorian then just being an honor student may not be satisfactory to the parent. ... The combination of living up to someone else's expectations and not having the resources within themselves to say it's okay, just to be yourself or to be searching for who you are at the appropriate age when you're searching, I think are very significant for our young people now.

How young are kids having sex now?

Several years ago a counselor came to me and said that she was extremely surprised to find that she had a fifth grade student who was sexually active. And this is a young girl who was 10 years old. That's an isolated incident. It is even now unusual. But I think what was more common for the older adolescents 10 years ago is becoming, not common-- at least, it's known that it exists at much younger ages such as 12, 13, 14. ...

What does it do to a girl to have sex at 12 or 13 or 14?

... I'm not sure what it does to her, but she's doing something she doesn't understand. ... My guess is that if a 12 year old is having sex they're doing it because someone has asked them to it and they're trying to get acceptance and feel cared about or feel loved because they don't feel loved in a general way--they don't feel loved and they're looking for that kind of confidence-builder if they're already having sex at that age. So they don't really know what they're doing because that's not what sex is about. ...

Have you ever known any young girl 13, 14, 15 to have sex? Have you known and been able to observe for yourself the consequences psychologically and otherwise?

I've observed some small groups, at i.e., 4 or 5 girls in a structured group with a counselor who have been involved in sexual activity. And the emotions that they're feeling are that what they did didn't in the end get them what they wanted-- which was to be liked or to be loved. They realize that they've done something they know that in retrospect they know their basic values are that is not something that's appropriate to do. They know that either from their parents or from their church or from the school that that's not an appropriate thing to do. So they know they've done something wrong. But they don't know how they would of stopped it. And they don't know how they would stop it the next time that it comes around.

So there's a tremendous amount of anxiety. Once again, they don't know what the structure is. They don't know what the limits are and that's one of the things that I think I mentioned is missing from many of the students, some of the students that we see now or many of the students--is that because of the lack of structure and the lack of limits, no one has ever sat down and specifically said to them, 'this is how far you go. This is the limits. This is what I will accept from you as appropriate.' Whether that's a parent, or a grandparent or an aunt or an uncle or someone who has taken the time to give them those limits. The anxiety of not having the limits on a regular basis can be extremely debilitating to the child. ...

What you're describing is in a sense--kids who are running their own lives.

I think there are a lot of children who are running their own lives. Who really are testing limits or don't know what the limits are. One or the other. And they don't have the maturity. They don't have the experiences. They don't understand the consequences. They don't even understand time, the concept of time as well as a person who's an adult. And by adult, I mean probably 25 plus. And so they're like a balloon out there floating around in the sky with little direction and to run into a power line or to a tree and just burst is something that they're very unaware that could happen. They don't know what's down the road. So I think there are many young people now who are very anxious about their lives and where they're headed and which way they're going.

A wonderful analogy, that. You know what's interesting to me when I see these kids-- and exactly what you're describing, we've seen over and over again--they think that they're having the time of their lives. They think by making up their own rules, hanging together as a sort of tribe, that they're living the good life. But they're not very happy.

No. I think that they're a lot of children who aren't very happy. I think that most of the counselors will tell you the same thing. That children do need limits and they would feel better about themselves. They would have more confidence, they would have direction. They would be more comfortable and would basically, as you say, would be happier if they did have direction. And, they can't have direction unless they have some structure and some guidance from those who've been there, that's been there, done that. And they just think for the moment that they're happy. But that anxiety, once again is an indication that they're not happy. That the moving from one party to the next or one activity to the next or, being devastated because they can't be kept on the cheerleading squad, that they can't be happy. ...

Whenever it is, that they start doing things that are really inappropriate and could have significant negative consequences for them in survival or being as productive as they possibly can be, then that's the time when parents and teachers and other adults need to understand that the child is looking for limits. They need more structure than what they've got.

And if they don't get it?

And if they don't get it, they're gonna keep sporadically looking for things that either stimulate them or get more and more inappropriate with their behavior, hoping that they're gonna get someone's attention who's going say, 'okay, stop, this is it. I've had enough. Now I'm gonna say this is as far as you can go.' And the problem that parents have in waiting until that point is that it becomes more and more difficult to stop the child.

What's very hard for parents is sticking with it. Staying with the child. Because once they give limits that they've never given before, the child's behavior only gets worse and worse. Because it had to be inappropriate to get someone's attention up to this point, then now they've gotten a little bit of attention, but they don't wanna be stopped. Because, as you said, they think they're having a good time. Now they think they don't wanna be stopped. ... And so oftentimes their behavior gets worse before it can get better.

And for some parents who don't have the patience to stick it out until the child can say, or does understand that, 'yes, this is what I need to help me and I am happier when I am doing the things that give me positive feedback instead of things that always just give me negative feedback,'--then I guess what I see is parents giving up. That sometimes they try to stop their children from going down a negative path or try to provide limits that they've never done before, it becomes very, very difficult for them. And in many cases they give up.

What do you think of parents who say that I want to be a friend to my child first and foremost?

I think that a parent wants to be a friend to their child because they're afraid of losing the child. I think it's as simple as that. Afraid of not having the child like them all the time. Perhaps because they're not willing to exert the effort and the energy that they know it'll take to be otherwise. It's a job. It's work to be a parent. It's not always easy.

And it may be one more job than parents could handle?

Could very well be. A number of our parents now have a lot of jobs. They're taking care of their homes. They got a job outside of home. They're taking care of children. Maybe the pets in the household. Maybe, you know, teaching the Sunday school class. It's all jobs. And this may just be one more job, one more hassle that could be too much.

The testing of limits that you're talking about--the experimentation, the children seeking limits--all that stuff is age old. Probably hasn't changed. But what struck us as having changed, is that childhood seems a dangerous place now. Really, literally a dangerous place. Do you agree with that? If so, why is that?

I think more than anything else, the mobility of children makes their testing limits dangerous. Many children have their own cars or they have the ability to get twenty miles from home which was unheard of even two decades ago. Being behind the wheel of a car and testing the limits is not safe. Testing the limits with lethal drugs is not safe. And the access to those to both--a five thousand pound vehicle and the access to lethal drugs is there. ...

A few years ago here there was there was a STD outbreak. I want to move to that subject. How did you first hear about the STD outbreak?

The STD outbreak that was in this community had really nothing to do with the school system as such. The public health department was dealing with a number of children in the community that they realized had sexually transmitted disease. ... The way I heard about it was a phone call from the director of public health saying that she felt that I should be involved in the committee which we fondly called our STD committee and that we should start looking at what was happening to get the facts and to try to find not only a short term solution to the problem but hopefully a long-term solution to the problem.

And what happened?

What happened was we had a very active involved work group of people that consisted of the public health department personnel, both nurses and director of public health. We had physicians, nurses that worked directly with a hospital here in the community. We had director of mental health. We had the persons from a collaborative here in the community, coalition for children and youth and families. We had the juvenile justice system. We had police officers, chief of police, sheriff's office. A strong group of personnel that in some shape, form or fashion were dealing with the young people in this community and with the consequences of their behaviors as well. ...

What was the content of that phone call?

Julie was seeing a group of mostly children. And when I say children I mean girls and boys under the age of 18 who were coming into the health department with a variety of sexually transmitted diseases. And I'm not a medical person, but it was, I thought, an array of sexually transmitted disease. And what they seemed to be finding through interviews with all the children that were coming in was that there was a small number of young adults who were responsible for the many contacts that were causing lots of the sexually transmitted disease. In other words, there was a nucleus, a small number of young people who had obviously had some kind of communicable disease and were having multiple contacts such as 50 sexual contacts with other young people. What I believe was frightening to Julie and to the other public health personnel, was the shear number of contacts that some of these young people were having. The fact that a 16 year old was having 50 sexual contacts and each of those having as many contacts. And that's how the diseases were spreading so rampantly in the community.

Did Julie, or anyone, tell you what she they were hearing about what was going on inside this nucleus of kids ?

We talked about it a lot in our work groups. It was not a difficult thing to talk about because the children had revealed what was going on. ... They were very glad to talk about what they had been doing. Their encounters with other people and the nature of the encounters. Julie, and the nurses in the health department had a huge number of stories to tell. Stories that frightened them. Stories that they had never heard before. ... I think it surprised the nurses that they were willing to talk about what seemed like inappropriate behaviors to them. But I think they were very relieved to talk about it. Many of the children knew that they were doing something wrong and they appreciated the idea of getting of getting it off their chest and getting well. All of the children were told that they didn't have to have parent permission to be at the public health department. And yet, the wide majority of them came back with their parents. So they obviously did go home and tell their parents. And that helped. ...

Do you think that the kids had been caught up in something they couldn't control?

Oh, absolutely. The children were very caught up in what, once again, they didn't know what the consequences of their behavior were. They were doing something that everybody else was doing. They were doing something that a friend was doing. That's very common behavior for all children who are adolescents. Whatever your friend does, just like whatever your friend wears, you wanna wear something just like it. You wanna be part of the group. And they just were doing something that made them part of the group. They had no idea of what the consequences would be. ...

You said they were relieved when they when they began talking about this. That implies almost that they wanted to stop.

They either wanted to stop, or they wanted someone else to help them stop. They knew it was wrong. They would not have been relieved otherwise to get rid of it. To tell other people. And especially their parents. I think that they knew once they told the parents, the parents would be much more involved in their lives and would give them more structure and would give them more limits. That no matter how much they surprised their parents or how much they shocked their parents, that they would begin to get more direction. And they did. They not only got more direction from their parents, many of the children found other directions for their lives. ... I know that many of those children began to put their energies and their efforts into many other activities that they know were appropriate. ...

I know you don't necessarily know these kids individually or even collectively, but just demographically speaking do you have some sense of the group?

... And it was a great cross-section. Just every imaginable profile of a child was in this group of students. It was not it was not aimed at a child who had money or didn't have money. Not aimed at a child who had a car or didn't have a car. Not aimed at a child who was a good student versus a bad student. A child who was a football player versus a band participant. It was a cross-section of children.

How young were the youngest of the kids?

Probably 13, 14. Middle school age. ...

Let's talk about the actual community response, besides getting together and talking. Was anything done? Was anything put into place to address this?

... One of the things that we came up with immediately was to have a town hall meeting. At which we invited the state department director of public health. She's a physician and she was to address the group on exactly what had happened in the community, what the consequences had been, and what the consequences could be. And let parents and other personnel in the community know exactly what had happened, and what they needed to do. Not necessarily what they needed to do, but what some ideas could be to help the children. We had church groups, youth ministers and ministers who were involved and they started addressing more issues in their youth groups.

How many parents showed up to that meeting?

75 to a hundred.

75 to 100 parents in the entire Rockdale County.

Right. We advertised the town hall meeting over a period of probably a month. ... Can't really put a finger on why so few people showed up. ...

Clearly the community of Rockdale did not consider this a crisis.

I don't believe that many of the parents saw the issue of sexually transmitted disease as one that was directly impacting their families. I think that many preferred to choose that this was an issue outside their family--that it was someone else's problem. But that's just speculation. They may have had a lot of other things that they were busy with as well.

Busy people.

Very busy people. However, we find that when we have meetings, for example, on how to get financial aid for students to go to college, we have a turn-out of 600 parents. Whereas in this case we had a hundred or less. ...

At the center of the STD nucleus as you put it, was a group that has been described to us variously as a gang, a family, a tribe, and we have noticed in our travels that this phenomena of kids clinging to each other in sort of tribes of kids, is widespread. What are the kids getting out of that? What is what is what is this giving them?

A feeling of belonging. They feel that they belong to this family, outside their actual biological family. They're being given a family to belong to. Which then enhances their self-confidence, which then allows them to have a pseudo-kind of happiness from one day to the next. ...

Are we failing our kids?

I hope not. I believe that we have ways to help our children be successful. I think that school systems and other community groups whether it be churches, whether it be health departments, other agencies, as well as parents as a whole have an obligation to stay focused on developing the resources of their children. Accepting that responsibility is probably one of the most important things that needs to be happening in this country today and is something that we don't have any choice but to take on. No, I don't think we're failing our children. I think that we need to accept our responsibilities more seriously in some cases than we have.

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