A Rising Generation of Broken Kids

Claiborne Mason, president of the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls, talks to students at the John G. Wood School.

In the 15 years Brendan Folmar has worked at the John G. Wood School, a private day school for emotionally handicapped children, he has witnessed a disturbing change in the kind of children admitted to the school.

When he first joined the Wood School staff, many of students were comparable to students today who are mainstreamed in Virginia public schools. Today the condition of students at Wood, says Folmar, the school principal, is more acute and more challenging to treat than ever.

“They’re not sending us cream puffs,” said Folmar of the public schools that assign children to Wood when all in-house remedies — mainstreaming, assigning special assistants, teaching in self-contained classrooms, and the like — have failed. “They’re placing kids who are younger and younger and have more severe behavior problems.”

Almost all of the children at Wood School and the affiliated Home for Girls and Boys, a residential community in the same wooded suburban complex in Henrico County, experienced physical abuse, emotional abuse, or sexual abuse as young children. Early childhood trauma affected them deeply, literally rewiring their brains, creating fight-or-flight impulses that can trigger emotional outbursts and violence.

As Folmar and Virginia Home for Girls and Boys President Claiborne Mason guided me through the campus on a recent snow day, the school was mostly empty. But I had a chance to meet several kids, who seemed like typical happy-go-lucky teenagers. But appearances can be deceiving. As we strolled down one hall, we happened upon the campus handyman who was cleaning up a plate-glass window that a student had kicked and shattered only a day or two previously.

“Young people are struggling more than ever,” Mason said. “Most suffer from severe depression. Most have been hospitalized several times [in psychiatric units] before they come to us.”

The Home for Girls and Boys and the Wood School provide a sheltered environment not just to help kids make up lost ground academically but learn life skills, learn trust, learn emotional self-control, and learn how to deal with everyday challenges of life. Helping shattered kids rebuild their lives is an expensive business. The Wood School has 25 staff for 45 children — a ratio that public schools could never hope to match. Only half the funds to operate the school come from the state. The rest comes from private philanthropy. It’s not a model that society can hope to replicate on a large scale.

But replication on a large scale seems to be what is needed. I came away from my visit impressed by the dedication, compassion and passion of everyone I met. But I also came away profoundly dispirited by the enormity of the challenge posed by the rising generation of broken children. To put it bluntly, our public schools and philanthropic institutions are being overwhelmed.

If you’re not a parent of a child with disabilities or an educator in the school system, you don’t hear much about this. People don’t brag at cocktail parties about messed up their kid is and the struggles they have finding help. News coverage emphasizes heart-warming success stories or focuses on fragments of the problem like the rise of autism, attention deficit disorder, or opioid addiction. Schools cry out for more money but schools have always cried out for more money, and there is so much evidence of mismanagement that many people tune it out.

But the problems are real, and systemic, and there is abundant anecdotal evidence to suggest that they are getting worse. Virginia is experiencing a social crisis the magnitude of which is not sufficiently appreciated. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be digging into the numbers to get a handle on the size, scope and origins of the crisis.

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8 responses to “A Rising Generation of Broken Kids”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    As you continue your research and reporting, keep this concept in mind:

    You are getting a close look at the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACES).

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    What’s the proper and legitimate role of government and taxpayers for these circumstances?

    Should we just expel these kids for being “disruptive” and harmful to other kids?

    I give Jim credit for taking the invite to go look and see – and I’m wondering if after he has seen this – does it change any of his thinking about the role and responsibility of public schools and whether private schools can do better?

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      As I’m sure you know, Larry, in many if not most cases the private programs are billing the government for the services provided. It can be on the taxpayers either way, although some of the private programs also have donations, other means of support.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Yep. But the premise often heard here in BR is that the public schools (pick your poison):

    1. too costly
    2. too generous benefits and pensions
    3. not transparent
    4. game the data they provide
    5. spend too much on disadvantaged kids to no good effect
    6. won’t get rid of the discipline kids that “hurt” the other from learning

    and overall that non-public schools (but funded with tax dollars) can do it better and cheaper.

    the above points have been a recurring theme here in BR with a sizeable number of commenters who pretty much agree

    but I’m actually asking in addition to the idea that these kids “needs” could be better met by giving tax money to the private sector to do that job…

    but going one step further in terms of Conservative philosophy in general an asking if it is the actual role of govt to serve these kids with these needs at all which used to be the case many years ago before laws were changed.

    It’s an honest question. Should govt be responsible for “all” kids “needs” especially “education” ?

    Discussions here also tend to castigate liberals for their “mo money” approach to problems as well as their “social justice” stuff… like what to do with the “disruptive” kids….etc…

    It just seems like Conservative folks are not so supportive of these efforts.. they certainly make money an issue and they seem to have very little to say about how we’d do it differently other than the oft-stated claim that the private sector could do it better/cheaper/etc.

    So it’s a fairly wide open question to those who consider themselves Conservative – ” Should govt be providing these services to extra-need kids”?

    yes or no. And if you answer yes – then explain how you’d do it different than now including the funding.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    And no, I’m not “mocking” Conservatives here. It’s an honest inquiry and my thinking about this is what has driven me away from the Conservative view in general even though I am (and can demonstrate) a fairly strong fiscal conservative. I just don’t see any real alternatives for the Govt role but then again I don’t think like a lot of hard core Conservatives on this or PERHAPS I need to re-think it myself!

    so the inquiry is honest…. not mocking ……

  5. Why did the abusers abuse? What are the moral standards of the abusers? Most people are the products of public schools, including the abusers, graduating after the sexual revolution. Did the abusers learn right from wrong in public schools? If the abusers do not believe that justice will eventually be served, do fear hell and hope for heaven, they have no absolute basis for making the judgment, no moral north star. The north star has been removed from public education, so we should not be surprised that adults now act what was once called immorally — to the detriment of the children.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Thank you for stating the obvious. Truth that most of us have forgot. Or don’t have the courage to say, or speak about anymore.

      Yet the truth you speak, its absence, and the consequences of that absence, is all around us. Notice how rarely we use the terms “moral, morality, right and wrong, personal responsibility” anymore. How almost no one is held “accountable” for their failure to honor those words anymore. Instead people who use these words are laughed at, mocked, shamed as bigots, or rubes who only live in awful rural places of faith and guns like”Kansas.”

      Meanwhile the cool hip and creative people, the educated posturing elite lecture us rubes with words like diversity, non-judgemental, unprejudiced, woke, inclusive. A society that does not make judgements, teach right from wrong, or require manners, finds itself soon lost in a sea of amoral youth. Young people who are nothing more than mirror images of those amoral citizens who raised them in their amoral, non-judgemental, inclusive, and diverse society.

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      “… Some nineteenth-century “Utilitarians” like Jeremy Bentham, thought that this happiness meant a sense of pleasure without pain. As usual, the ancients like Aristotle were more sophisticated than many intellectually clumsy moderns and made a connection between pleasure and virtue. They called this “eudaimonia.” That is to say, you cannot honestly feel good unless you do what is good, and you cannot do what is good unless you yourself are good. … real happiness demands that humans give God permission to impart His goodness to our souls. It is possible to fake happiness, and that is why there is so much unhappiness in our culture, which disdains virtue. One can create an illusion of happiness, but it is a kind of moral stage set, and its falseness is revealed in the frightening explosion in drug use, and the seventy per cent increase in suicides among young people in the past decade.

      Real happiness is not the result of painlessness, but comes from dealing with pain the right way. This is why the Scriptures curiously remark almost nonchalantly: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” (Ecclesiastes 7:2a). Jesus promises a joy that “might be full” (John 15:11), and at the same time He was a “man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53: 3) …

      Here is the confidence that man’s destiny, willed by God and which can only be thwarted by the selfish will of corrupted humans, is participation in endless happiness. The word for this is more than happiness based on happenstance … Chesterton asked rhetorically in his Ballad of the White Horse: “Do you have joy without a cause?” His point: there is no joy without a cause. That would be like having health by chance …”

      See Father Rutler’s Weeky Column, December 16, 2018, and See https://fathergeorgerutler.podbean.com

      George William Rutler has written 15 books. His latest is Calm in Chaos: Catholic Wisdom for Anxious Times, August 12, 2018

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