Crescent Leadership Academy is located in a serene part of New Orleans. The charter school serves students who have been expelled from other schools and who are looking for a second chance in a city where nearly 40 percent of children live in poverty.
“At any given point we could have 25 percent of our students who are homeless, anywhere between 15 to 25 percent all the time,” said principal Nick Dean. He hopes one day his school will be able to offer housing to students in need of shelter and safety in a city plagued by violence.
“Last week I know of a student who lost somebody in their family, so even as of last week and at any given time we may have one or two students walking around with bullet holes in them,” Dean said.
Violence has claimed many students’ lives.
“We've lost, since we've opened, and this is our fourth year - we've had 14 of our students to die,” said Tracy Bennett-Joseph, superintendent of Crescent Leadership Academy.
Dr. Denese Shervington is president of the New Orleans-based Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies. She says many New Orleans children are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. "It's similar to the rate of veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. It's about the same rate," she said.
Dr. Shervington says in surveys conducted over the past several years of more than 1,200 New Orleans public school students, nearly 40 percent said they had witnessed a shooting, stabbing or beating. 54 percent of the children surveyed said someone close to them had been murdered.
"And 18 percent of these kids reported that they had actually witnessed, with their own eyes, they had seen the murder of someone close to them," she said.
A teenager we'll call Mary relieves stress by writing. She witnessed a shooting in the metro area several years ago.
"I saw the little boy, he was walking and he had on some like brand new Jordans (tennis shoes) or whatever, so I looked around the corner and I saw someone with all black on and a hoodie on and shot the boy and took his shoes and I just ran back inside and told my dad. I was like, 'I don't even want to be here no more,'” she said.
The teen we talked to has received counseling and is doing well and preparing to graduate from high school.
However, Dr. Shervington says most children are not receiving therapy they need to deal with psychological trauma and that can lead to problems in school, depression, substance abuse and violence.
"Where a person is just acting violently and aggressively seemingly without reason,” Shervington said.
The Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies has started a social media campaign called #sadnotbad to call attention to the need for mental health services for vulnerable youth.
Meanwhile, “Mary” is looking for a peaceful place to call home.
"Anywhere you go there's violence but in New Orleans I strongly believe there's more down here.” When asked whether someday it will get better, the young lady answered, “I pray. That's all you can do is pray and hope."
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