Looking for ways to break ‘cradle-to-prison pipeline’

{child_byline}MICHELLE BRUNETTI POST

Staff Writer

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MAYS LANDING — When children are chronically stressed, their brains can suffer and so can their futures, a panel of experts said at a forum organized by the Atlantic City Chapter of Jack and Jill.

Some of the most damaging stressors are called adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, including physical and sexual abuse, having a mentally ill parent, death or abandonment by a parent and having an alcoholic or drug-abusing parent, said Jeff Wellington, supervisor of special projects at the Hamilton Township School District.

It was part of a discussion on “Breaking the Cradle to Prison Pipeline,” with seven panel members and an audience of about 50.

“The body starts to engage in the fight or flight response, flooding the body with cortisol and adrenaline,” said Wellington. That’s good when there’s a bear to fight, “but when that bear takes a different form, like having an alcoholic father coming home every evening, you have the response all the time.”

Repeated flooding of the body with chemicals is toxic, he said. And many children are dealing with the consequences, facing delayed brain development and emotional and social difficulties, he said.

It’s much more difficult for them to focus on learning, he said, and leaves them at higher risk for suicide and poor decision-making that can lead to incarceration.

Harvey Lambert, a guidance counselor at Atlantic City High School, said he sees children trying to get over post-traumatic stress coming from what they see in their homes and communities.

“I deal mainly with minority students, African American and Hispanic,” he said. “They are exposed to what children in many Third World countries and war-torn countries have to deal with.”

He said they hear and experience gun violence, death and maiming.

“Yet they are expected to go to school, act normal and get good grades,” Lambert said.

Schools need more resources to help children get treatment for the PTSD they experience, he said.

That sentiment was echoed by Marylynn Stecher, supervisor of special education and child-study teams for the Hamilton School District.

Stecher said teachers need to be better prepared to deal with the emotional and mental health needs of their students, rather than being expected to focus so exclusively on test results and academics.

Mary Mohrhoff, a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness who has a son with bipolar disorder who is on the autism spectrum, talked about the importance of helping schools understand the behaviors of special-needs students, who sometimes act out and are punished rather than counseled.

Also on the panels were Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner and Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Susan F. Maven, talking about young people and the criminal justice system.

Kerrin C. Wolf, assistant professor of business studies and public law at Stockton University, said he has researched how schools discipline children and the long-term effects of serious discipline such as suspension on children’s futures.

“It doesn’t work, and even more, it is harmful,” Wolf said. “It’s marking someone as a troubled kid.”

And it happens much more frequently to minority children, children with disabilities and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, he said.

Jack and Jill of America is a membership organization of mothers with children ages 2-19, dedicated to nurturing future African American leaders. For more information, visit jackandjillac.com.

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Contact: 609-272-7219 MPost@pressofac.com Twitter @MichelleBPost Facebook.com/EnvironmentSouthJersey

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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