Rep. Barbieri: Governor’s Focus on Youth Issues Is Right Course

The following op-ed ran in the February 26 edition of the (Wilmington) News Journal

By Rep. Michael A. Barbieri

Governor Markell’s State of the State address last month filled me with optimism and rejuvenated me. Not only did he present great ideas for continuing to move Delaware forward, but he also addressed the key issues that were my impetus for seeking office.

Since the early 90s, my agency, Crossroads of Delaware, has been providing counseling services to youth who have substance abuse and behavioral problems. By the time these youth get to our doors, they have become disenchanted with the educational system and have significant involvement with the juvenile justice system. The state, in its efforts to assist these youth, offers considerable services, but in many cases it is too late and is difficult for them to reintegrate.

Having seen this happen over and over again with the youth in my agency, I decided to run for office so I could look at ways that policies or laws could be modified to better serve these youth at a younger age and at considerably less cost. When first elected, I was able to establish a task force to address our zero tolerance policies, which forced school officials to suspend or even expel students despite acknowledging that this wasn’t the best course of action. Through this group, were able to give schools and teachers much more discretion regarding action on youth. I believe this has helped youth to stay in school.

From the governor’s address, it is clear that he recognizes the importance of educating our youth and providing the necessary assistance for those who young people who are struggling. In his words, “Underutilized potential has always been a human tragedy.”

To make a difference, we need to intervene earlier with young people, helping them overcome any barriers to their success and guiding them to a more positive future. Many of our best and brightest who might come from disadvantaged homes are being alienated by the education system. Often they act out because of outside pressures and are suspended or expelled because of this behavior. This results in further alienation and more time on the street unsupervised without direction – and often without hope. These issues are exacerbated if they wind up in Ferris School and are shunned by traditional schools when trying to return. We need to find ways to keep youth in school and when behavioral problems manifest, provide the necessary resources to help the youth and family.

I agree with the Governor that we must improve access to behavioral health services for youth who are struggling and work with the schools to better respond. I am pleased that he has instructed Kids Department Secretary Jennifer Ranji to work in this area. I continue to believe that if we invest in these young people earlier and find ways to keep them in school and focused on a future, fewer will enter the justice system – and the cost of services and the outcome will significantly improve.

Some of the related issues that Secretary Ranji will likely encounter are truancy, suspensions and expulsions. A task force Rep. Darryl Scott and I chaired has studied these issues, and that information should provide guidance. It is sad to say, but the phrase that has been accepted nationally with regard to suspension and expulsion of troubled youth is “School-to-Prison Pipeline.” I hope we can reverse that here in Delaware.

Governor Markell’s State of the State has given me hope that these youth will not continue to be put to the side and will be seen as valuable resources we cannot afford to lose. Every child has potential – I see it in many of the troubled youth who have passed through Crossroads Delaware. This is beginning to make me feel that my goal to get the voice of troubled youth heard in Dover is coming to fruition. Now it is up to all of us to see those words become actions.