OAKLAND (KCBS) – Last year, 13 Oakland public school students were murdered, 11 of them were African American boys. To stem the epidemic of gun violence, the Oakland School District launched a class that teaches African American manhood development.
The group of Oakland High School freshmen in this year’s course are rambunctious, but when teacher Tiago Robinson talks, they pay attention.
“If you want money, sometimes you might not make a good decision,” said Robinson.
Robinson, 40, wasn’t even a teenager when he began holding the stash for West Oakland drug dealers. By the time he was 13 he was slinging crack, until he saw too many of his friends get killed and went back to school, eventually earning his master’s degree in counseling.
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“If they want the rims and the clothes and the jewelry – they can get it,” said Robinson. “They can get it legitimately. You don’t have to go out and rob and steal and kill. I can say that because I was there.”
Pictures of Malcom X and Dr. King hang on the classroom walls, and posters read, “You can’t hear opportunity knock if you always have the TV on.” This is where the bar is raised for behavior, school and life expectations.
Matin Abdul-Qawi is program director for the district’s African American Male Achievement Department. He said that it starts with deprogramming these boys from the negative social images they’ve grown up with.
“We get them to see themselves as positive, productive, loving, caring, nurturing, passionate about life, and excited about education. It’s in them. We can do that,” said Abdul-Qawi. “We have to give them the confidence that they can develop a strong positive self-image of themselves. We want them to see how we can actually be brothers with one another, and not see each other as adversaries.”
It’s harder to reach the kids who’ve already crossed the line – those who have bought into the “throwaway kid” mentality. David Muhammed is Alameda County’s Chief Probation Officer. He’s pressing judges to consider the trauma in a kid’s background before passing sentence.
“There is an old saying that hurt people – hurt people,” said Muhammed. “When you have a young person that has experienced so much trauma that has gone unaddressed, and then they commit a delinquent act, we can’t only look at the delinquent act and punish that delinquent act without addressing that underlying trauma that they’ve experienced.”
Sammy, 17, is facing 15 years for armed robbery. He hopes to learn a trade when he’s behind bars.
“Robbing a lot of them stores, now I got to do my time,” said Sammy. “I’m gonna get on parole and then go back to school and it’s going to be hard, but the key is not to give up. I’ve got people in my corner so I’m hoping that when I get out, my girlfriend, who’s going to UC San Diego, I’ll be with her out there and just see if I can start my life over.”
This spring, the county is placing probation officers in high schools and health centers to better connect with a young offender’s environment. It will only work if the teen is willing to try.
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