When Jill looks at old photos of her son, she can see the sorrow on his face.
"It looks like he had given up on the world," she said.
It's easy to understand why. Christopher was only nine when his school expelled him from the 2nd grade for a year.
He had pushed a teacher.
The school system in Alabama believed Christopher, who was already two grades behind, simply didn't belong in school.
Before the January 2007 expulsion, the boy's parents had repeatedly asked the school to test their son to determine whether he needed special education services. He had already been diagnosed with depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Yet the school never evaluated him, even though his teachers and principals knew that he suffered from severe behavioral problems and that he lagged behind in his studies.
Christopher's mother contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center in March 2007. The SPLC intervened and got him back in school and into a program to address his behavioral problems. He was also evaluated for special education services.
His father says the school was too quick to give up and wonders what would have become of his son without the SPLC's intervention.
Unfortunately, Christopher's story is all too common in schools across America. Instead of giving these students the help they need — and deserve under federal law — many schools shirk their legal responsibility and push students out for misbehavior that is often related to their learning disabilities. In addition, harsh zero-tolerance policies covering a wide range of behavior put them at risk of being sent into the juvenile justice system — a phenomenon known as the "school-to-prison pipeline."
The SPLC is combating this phenomenon with its School-to-Prison Reform Project, a national campaign to stop the flow of children from schools into the juvenile courts and detention facilities. Some studies suggest that as many as 70 percent of children in detention have significant mental health or learning disabilities — the very same children that can and should be helped in school.
The SPLC can't help each child individually but is winning systemic reforms in school systems across the South and is working with partners in other regions of the country to help thousands of other students like Christopher.
Progress and a 'spark'
Today, Christopher is in the 5th grade and continues to make progress. The 12-year-old got the help he needed and received one-on-one classroom instruction until he caught up with his classmates. Except for math, he is now enrolled in all regular classes and makes the A/B honor roll.
"I'm learning now in class," Christopher said. "I felt like I was left out in class. That's not the case now."
In the past, Christopher said, he didn't want to go to school in the morning. He would tell his mother he was sick so that he could stay home. Now he is completing his school work, is interested in homework assignments and is getting good marks for his behavior, his mother said. This past fall, his science project earned a score of 95, and his social studies project a 90. At home, Christopher enjoys music. He taught himself to play his father's synthesizer and writes his own songs.
"It's just a real turnaround," his mother said. "He's showing everyone that you can't give up on him."
His progress didn't come without effort and didn't come overnight. It has required teamwork from Christopher's parents, teachers, social workers and SPLC attorneys. There can still be setbacks, behavioral issues and other problems. But the anger and frustration that troubled Christopher before he got help has vanished, his mother said.
"It's absolutely a more positive outlook," she said.
Christopher remains on a path that is moving forward, allowing him to pursue his education and address his special needs rather than being pushed out of the classroom. He has an opportunity for an education.
It's a transformation other students could experience if given the proper help and opportunities, his mother said.
"Hundreds of [children] would be back in school" if they received the same help, she said. She should know. Today when Jill looks at recent photos of her son, she no longer sees the stress and sorrow that was once so obvious. Instead, there's a hopeful young boy.
"That spark is back," she said.
* The names of the family members featured in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.