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Leaders come together to redefine, better serve ‘at-risk’ youth in Las Vegas

Naoka Foreman
Naoka Foreman
Students walk into J.E. Manch Elementary School in Las Vegas

Schools often refer to groups of students as “at-risk,” describing youth who have weak relationships with school systems, their home life or the community.

But advocates at a recent conference hosted by the Clark County School District and the City of Las Vegas argued for flipping the script on the term and having institutions take responsibility for the oppressive forces that racially marginalized children encounter multiple times a day.

“They start to believe something is inherently wrong with their character when we call them at-risk – when they are placed at-risk because of oppressive systems,” said Celeste Malone, a Howard University professor and school psychology expert.

Malone was a presenter at the 6th Annual Las Vegas My Brother’s Keeper Conference, titled “Fighting for our Future: Healing our Community to Heal our Youth”, held on Jan. 24 and 25 by the City of Las Vegas’s Youth Development and Social Innovation Department. The virtual conference attracted 600 to 700 people who work in education, law enforcement, policy, and religious and community organizing spaces. 

Screenshot of Celeste Malone, a Howard University professor and school psychology expert, at a virtual My Brother's Keeper Conference in Las Vegas on Jan. 24-25, 2022.

My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) Alliance is a national mentorship initiative launched by former President Barack Obama to address opportunity gaps that persist for male children of color and especially Black boys. The online conference, which ran for a combined eight hours, saw local leaders illuminate the wounds in the community that needs addressing, and the humanity required to do such work. 

Speakers focused on healing the community with self-care as a means of fighting for the future of young people. They argued that there can be no healing without knowledge and an understanding of today’s societal values and the modern moment. 

Malone spoke about oppression in schools and how it particularly affects Black boys. She described how severe repressive actions in institutions disrupt children's interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships, exacerbating the situation called “at-risk.” 

She asked attendees to think about the repeated microaggressions that traumatize Black boys’ experiences in schools, such as excessive observation and lack of empathy. Microaggressions are subtle indignities expressed by people, whether intentional or unintentional, that affect another persons’ self-esteem and can come across as hostile or insulting.

Malone said that opportunity gaps are more frequently experienced by Black boys than any other racial group in schools, as is school pushout (suspensions, expulsions or other disciplinary policies that keep students physically away from school) and harsh discipline. Her presentation compared schools to boiling pots and “at-risk” children to frogs inside them, experiencing a simmering combination of bias, oppression, and differential treatment depending on their racialized and marginal status.

She said some kids finally “jump out of the pot” by dropping out of school. She also said there is a lack of public intervention on the issue.

One initiative celebrated by local Black leaders at the conference was the TAPS Academy program, which focuses on local children identified as “at-risk.” TAPS, or Teen and Police Services, is a national program that puts police and at-risk youth on “equal footing” so they can work together and share ideas. 

According to the TAPS Academy website, strategies include adopting the best approaches to community policing, including lessons from the D.A.R.E. (drug abuse resistance education) program, gang resistance education and other initiatives that actively engage youth who have been placed in the at-risk category. The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which funds the program, says the outcome from the TAPS program has increased social bonding between at-risk teens and police by 30 percent to 60 percent.

But not everyone is a fan of the TAPS program or others aimed at connecting police with Black youth. Former youth offender Dontae Scott said in an interview that the program “sounds like more law enforcement in kids' lives to me.”

“They keep trying to fix the problem by focusing on the symptoms,” he said. “That ain’t how it works.” 

Sharing a similar sentiment, University of Nevada Las Vegas professor of psychology Shane Kraus spoke about increasing hopelessness experienced by racially marginalized teens, especially African Americans, that he said must be addressed. He pointed to the unmet need for social services and federal services. 

Former NFL player, licensed therapist and self-described two-time suicide survivor Jay Barnett described a world for Black men that can cause them to implode because they don’t have safe spaces to express pain. He asserted that “we don’t see humans – we see numbers.” 

“When we see teachers, we see a percentage. When we see students, we see a test grade —  did they pass or not?” he said. “What does that do to [the] mental?”

The conference also centered on promoting culturally affirming language or speech that acknowledges cultural differences, anti-racism education or curriculum that actively addresses white supremacy and racism in educational systems, rather than being neutral, and systems of change. According to Niibilo Armah IV, interim director of My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, the program is doubling down on change systems, or systems that identify and solve complex issues, to see better outcomes. 

“Mental health is not listed as a milestone because it is integrated across all milestones,” Armah IV said. “Building systems of change work is in my DNA.” 

Armah IV also emphasized the importance of the role a rite of passage plays, tying the practice to tribal and ancestral rituals. He alluded to its lack of presence in the inner-city community – signifying a gap that My Brothers Keeper Alliance can help fill. 

The ​​My Brother's Keeper initiative was founded in 2014 by the Obama Foundation, but in 2017 the local alliance was restructured into three different task forces: community engagement, educational equity and law enforcement. A year after the organization was reorganized into three task forces, the Las Vegas chapter received special recognition from MBK.

The national My Brother’s Keeper initiative has six primary goals:

  • All children enter school cognitively, physically, socially, and emotionally ready 
  • All children read at grade level by third grade
  • All youth graduate from high school
  • All youth complete post-secondary education or training 
  • All youth out of school are employed
  • All youth remain safe from violent crime

Community perspective

As long as communities remain intertwined with policing, Black individuals might experience what therapist Jay Barnett calls “Black-xaustion” (derived from exhaustion) which speaks to the secondary traumatization Black people feel from public police killings – on top of experiencing microaggressions regularly.

He described how these mental uphill battles contribute to the second leading cause of death for Black youth — suicide. 

During the conference, public education advocate Punam Mathur said, “The world is under our watch. If under our watch, a man can be killed for nine minutes, then what is it that we’re not doing?” 

Former NFL player and mental health advocate Solomon Thomas said the current generation is “more aware of their mental health.” Both Thomas and Barnett spoke about the social programming boys, especially athletes, endure that causes them to shut down their emotions and react, rather than processing and understanding the moment. 

Panelists called on law enforcement officers to work on their mental health too. Brigid Duffy, director of the Clark County Juvenile Division, says her policing career forces her to “see the lowest points of human nature.” 

Since the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act of 1974, “at-risk” youth continue to be managed by the punitive arm of the federal government — the U.S. Department of Justice. Elizabeth Hinton, author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration, argues in her book that punitive tactics to address youth classified as “at-risk” exacerbates racial disparities in the justice system. 

Before those policies were introduced in 1974, strategies that actively engage at-risk youth were housed under the federal Housing, Education, and Welfare Department.

Tammy Malich, director of the City of Las Vegas’s Department of Youth Development and Social Innovation (YDSI) and chair of education equity at CCSD, said young people in the city are scared, and she can see it in their eyes. Malich has spent her career working in underserved communities in an educational leadership role in Las Vegas for more than 20 years, including on projects such as Batteries Included and Reinvent Schools Las Vegas.

Malich said CCSD Superintendent Jesus Jara mandated that all school principals attend the conference. 

According to Mathur, law enforcement was in attendance as well. Duffy, from the juvenile division within the Clark County district attorney’s office, told law enforcement during the conference, “We will have to learn to look at our goals a little differently.”


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