Schools on the Front Lines: "These Are the Toughest Kids You Will Ever Meet"

Jun 1, 2016

This week NHPR has been reporting on how New Hampshire schools are fundamentally rethinking the role they play in the lives of their students and in their communities. Reeling from the state’s heroin crisis, the aftermath of the recession, and struggling local economies, many schools are taking on a mountain of new responsibilities beyond the classroom, often with limited help from the state.

As part of NHPR’S State of Democracy, reporter Natasha Haverty takes us to one of the schools trying new ways of helping students navigate life: Laconia High School.

Ryan Bond, a sophomore at Laconia High, says he has two versions of himself. One is the way most people see him, how he fits into the social universe of high school.

“I bet they think I’m like, a mad drug dealer, and taker, because of what I wear…” Bond says.

He wears a Rastafarian hoodie, is tall and skinny, lurches forward a little.

But Bond has no interest in doing drugs; he’s seen what they’ve done to people he cares about.

“I don’t like drugs, they will seriously mess you up, and your entire life.”

In class, he’ll be the first to first to tell you, he acts like a punk sometimes—throwing paper airplanes at classmates, blowing off homework.

And just a few years ago, that behavior might have been enough for him to slip through the cracks, or even get kicked out of school.

Nowadays though, Ryan Bond gets introduced to Ms. Gibbs instead. Mary Gibbs is the Behavioral Health Specialist at Laconia High School.

“These kids get labeled as quote the bad kids. They’re not the bad kids, okay—they are the toughest kids you will ever meet, okay? It’s amazing that they can walk through the door every day and succeed,” says Gibbs.

Her job was created three years ago, part of a bigger effort by the district to take on the struggles, and trauma, many students live with here.

Related story: How Schools Are Becoming the New Safety Nets for N.H.'s Neediest Students

According to student survey data, nearly half the students in Laconia say they've lived with someone with a drug or drinking problem. At least one in five have a family member in prison or jail, or has lived with domestic abuse. More than half the kids qualify for free lunch.

“Just imagine you or I getting up in the morning and there’s nothing to eat," Gibbs says. "Or clothes we have to wear that we’ve worn for a week. We have to walk to school, nobody brings us to school. And then we get there and maybe somebody’s making fun of the fact that they’ve seen us in the same jeans for a week. And then you ask them to be in a class for 90 minutes and excel. It’s pretty hard, you know.”

That’s why Gibbs says judging a student like Ryan Bond only by when he acts out in class misses big parts of who he is. It doesn’t leave room to talk about the fact that he hasn’t seen most of his family in a long time, or that his older brother is just out of jail and wearing an ankle bracelet at home. 

“You know the drugs are out there the alcohol’s out there, the risky behavior is out there, so they’re at risk," Gibbs says. "It impacts them because it’s there.”

With new but limited funding, Laconia educators are working to create a safe space where students can get more of the help they need. The school opened a food pantry. Students can get dinner at school. There are trauma-informed yoga classes, and more mental health counselors on site.

Ms. Gibbs runs a group after school; sometimes students just vent, sometimes they catch up on homework. And there are rules: cell phones go in a box. And the students have to commit to show up at least four times a month, so that they can trust each other.

But they broke their own rules to let me come in, and hear a little about what’s going on in their world.

Jolene Martin has a broad smile, and tucks her hands into the cuffs of her sweatshirt, even on a hot day like this one. Says she mainly comes here for her friends.

“I’m here for moral support.”

It takes her a little while to mention one of the biggest things she’s dealing with at home right now.

“There’s not much alcoholism and drugs in my life," Jolene says. "I mean, I’ve gone through like divorce of the parents, and my dad went to prison, and he’s been here since I was eight."

And after being locked up half her life, Martin’s dad is about to get out. She’s worried he’s going to try to get custody.

“I don’t want to be a part of his life,” she says.

But on this afternoon, Martin’s just trying to get a history paper done that she’s three days behind on.

Joe Foyle, who has an eyebrow piercing he did himself, is another sophomore here.

“I don’t mean to make it sound like oh poor pitiful me, but we’ve got a lot going on, with the economy and all those," Foyle says.

Foyle has friends who have died from heroin overdoses, others who are pregnant or have kids and work jobs. He says this group, with Ms. Gibbs, is one of the only reasons he still comes to school.

“And sometimes I feel like even if I were to get my diploma it wouldn’t matter at all because I just feel like there’s absolutely no place for me in the world. And I know a lot of other kids feel that way,” Foyle says.

Last year, one in four seniors here didn't graduate on time. And as this school year winds down, Ms. Gibbs admits she gets anxious about the time she’ll have to wait before seeing these kids again:

“The last day of school, I worry about my kids all summer long," she says. "But I take rides through town and I toot my horn and I wave and I let ‘em know I’ll be seeing ‘em in late August.”