When you send a child to school, there’s an expectation of protection. Between teachers, staff members, and other parents, there are multiple safety nets in place to keep every child safe. Unfortunately, there are numerous cases of kids having a rough go when they should be studying and having fun.
Take, for example, Gabriel Taye of Cincinnati, Ohio. His parents had been dropping him off at Carson Elementary School, expecting him to make friends and learn new things. But when they found out what was going on during the school day, they learned a horrible truth no parent should ever have to face.
Everything began simply enough. Cornelia Reynolds, Gabriel’s mother, had just dropped him at school for the day. But, before long, she received a phone call from the nurse’s office.
The nurse explained that Gabriel had suddenly fainted. He had been taken to the nurse’s office and was feeling better, but Cornelia was welcome to come pick him up.
When Cornelia saw her son, though, he wasn’t wearing the big smile she was used to seeing. There was something immediately off about Gabriel’s personality — something only a mother could recognize.
In private, Gabriel explained to her that he felt nauseous and had stomach pain, which was odd: not only was he a normally healthy child, but he never pretended to be sick or tried to stay home from school. Something was wrong.
So Cornelia took her son to the hospital, where doctors helped calm his nausea. The pair went home, and Gabriel stayed home from school the next day to make sure he was alright. And he was — at first.
Just when things were starting to seem normal, Gabriel’s father, Benyam, received a mysterious voicemail from his son. He wasn’t expecting a phone call, but was curious to hear the message.
“I love you no matter what. I hope you be safe,” the boy told his father. “And, just know I love you. Bye.” Benyam didn’t know what prompted this message, but things started to make sense in the coming days.
The next morning, Gabriel returned to school. There were no visits to the nurse’s office, and he came home in the afternoon without a hitch. But that night, the family’s world changed forever.
Once at home, Gabriel went to his room to do homework. A few hours later, his mother went to check on her son before dinner. Nothing could have prepared her for what she found.
Because when she walked into the room, she saw immediately that Gabriel wasn’t doing his homework. Rather, the eight-year old had hung himself from his bunk bed with a necktie.
His mother was completely blindsided, unable to process the reality of what she saw: Her child was gone. “Gabriel was a shining light to everyone who knew and loved him,” she said.
“We miss him desperately and suffer every day,” his mother explained. “His life was not only stolen from him, but from those of us who expected to watch him grow up and enjoy life.” The family needed some kind of closure.
So, still devastated, all the family could do was search for answers. Before long, a police investigation began. What, they wanted to know, prompted Gabriel to take his own life?
During the investigation, a detective reached out to Gabriel’s school and received access to their surveillance recordings. When he checked the tapes from the day Gabriel fainted, something immediately stood out.
According to the detective, Gabriel had been bullied by his classmates. Shockingly, based on what he saw, the bullying “could even rise to the level of criminal assault,” he noted.
Bullying? Gabriel’s parents couldn’t believe it. Their son always seemed happy and never mentioned any problems at school. What could have been happening that was THAT bad?
When they saw the tapes, they knew: videos showed Gabriel walking into the school bathroom and encountering another boy. That boy shook Gabriel’s hand and pushed him to the floor. Then, it only got worse.
As Gabriel laid on the tile, other students stepped over him; some stopped to nudge his body while others appeared to kick him. Finally, after several minutes, adults noticed the situation. They helped him up and took him to the nurse.
Despite several adults getting involved, the school never reported the incident. From school officials, there was no investigation as to what happened; their explanation was that Gabriel said he fell.
Faced with that revelation, Gabriel’s parents took legal action. They sued the school for withholding information about the incident and failing to report a violent atmosphere in the building.
As of 2019, the case was still unresolved, but the story wasn’t finished. Gabriel’s parents kept his memory alive in another way outside of the courtroom.
They started to use their son’s tragic story to fight bullying. And soon after they began spreading the word, the Taye family gained a massive celebrity ally.
Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said that his heart broke upon hearing about Gabriel. He has since worked with the family raise awareness about bullying.
Advocacy was the family’s way of keeping their son’s legacy alive. “Losing a child over bullying, that’s hard,” Benyam said. “We should first acknowledge bullying is real. And then take steps to prevent them again and again, ’cause these kids are just young.”
Meanwhile, other schools are taking steps to ensure that bullying doesn’t become a cultural issue in the first place. At Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore for instance, faculty introduced a creative way to discipline misbehaving students.
The school turned to Ali and Atman Smith, who’d grown up nearby and knew all too well how a negative environment could disrupt an education. “There’s all these things just getting dumped on these kids,” said Ali, “and they need a way to kind of deal with it.”
One of the problems getting “dumped on kids,” the brothers realized, was discipline. Punishing kids for mistakes didn’t help correct behavioral issues much, and in fact, research showed just how detrimental these methods were.
According to English Scholar Dr. Ruth Payne’s research, punishments like detentions are actually less effective because they damage the relationship between the teacher and the student.
That’s why it’s also advised that teachers avoid calling out a student’s bad behavior in class. Embarrassing a kid in front of his friends only serves to make the teacher their enemy. Other methods, like rewarding good behavior, fell short, too.
According to some researchers, by just rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior, teachers aren’t treating their students like people, they’re treating them like pets. Ali and Atman took notice of the research.
That’s why the brothers started a program that provided schools with an alternative to traditional punishments in order to give students a more holistic experience. Their proposed solution was, at first, shocking to those that heard it.
University of Maryland
Under their scheme, instead of unruly students getting a one-way ticket to the principal’s office, they’re sent to the mystical Mindful Moment room. There, they don’t find a punishment.
In the Mindful Moment room, students can take a moment to de-stress and calm down after a fight or over-stimulation. The staff there teach the kids to redirect their negative energy into something positive. It’s, in a sense, meditation — but could it work?
In 2013, Robert D. Colbert conducted a study at a high school to see how effective meditation really was. The entire senior class was split into two groups: one meditated regularly throughout the year and the other did not. The results surprised them…
Liz Scheltens / Vox
When the year finished, the researchers looked at the graduation rates of the two groups to see if there was a difference. The imbalance was astounding: the graduation rate went up 15% among students who meditated — and even more for those with a low GPA!
These findings are critical for one reason: on average, a student drops out of high school every 26 seconds. That’s about 1.2 million students every year. If schools had access to holistic programs like this, that could all change — and Ali and Atman surmised this, too.
With the brother’s strategy, Robert W. Coleman Elementary School hoped to be the spark that ignited the change all over the country. Even the students there came around to the idea of meditation.
“I did some deep breathing, had a little snack, and I got myself together, then apologized to my class,” said one student who had been sent to the Mindful Moment room. But the program doesn’t just provide students with a room to avoid detention.
Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson
Many students at Coleman Elementary are under the poverty line and over 80 percent receive assistance for school lunches. The Mindful Moment room is a safe space in more ways than one. “We’re trying really hard here to make this a place where children feel safe and where their needs are met,” said the principal.
And the room isn’t just a place for students to get away from in-school stress. It can also help them reflect on issues at home that are impacting their studies, helping them to center their focus. Still, skeptics wondered what the long-term impact could be.
Well, before they implemented the program, several students were getting suspensions every year and many more were sent to the principal for disciplinary action. But after one year with the new approach? Not a single student was suspended. The kids noticed.
“When they leave the room,” said one student, “they’re peaceful and quiet and ready to do their work.” But even if the kids are feeling the positive impact, doubters remain unsure about the approach.
In fact, a handful of researchers believe that the effects of “mindfulness” exercises are random and aren’t long-lasting. According to them, you can achieve the same results from other simple things like diet and exercise. Of course, with mindfulness, you still get to eat that second slice of cake.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the holistic approach seems to make an impact when implemented in the right way with the right students. “These techniques kind of make you focus on the present,” said Ali, “which that’s all there really is.”
Innovation and creative new ideas can breathe life into under-served schools. Ali and Atman knew it, and so did Akbar Cook, the vice principal of West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey. When he walked on to campus after he landed the job, he knew he had to fight for a change.
Akbar Cook / Facebook
To Cook, the hallways “looked like a mall;” students leaned against lockers tagged with gang signs and lingered outside empty classrooms, disinterested in their education. Cook had his work cut out for him, but he wouldn’t be deterred: he was there to make a difference.
“I had to go back to my teachings from my grandmother,” he told On Point. “The gangsters don’t come to school. They already told their families that they weren’t going to do it. So if a kid is in school, they’re either afraid or loved — from their mama, nana, their uncle or somebody.”
But as steadfast in his mission as he was, Cook alone couldn’t stop tragedy from striking. Gang violence took three of his students over the next year, and many feared things would never improve for students. That’s when Cook decided he’d no longer be a bystander.
Drawing on his experience as a kid in the Boys and Girls Club, Cook opened the school from 6 pm to 11 pm on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays during the summer to provide students with a safe haven from crime. The results were unexpected.
“We opened it up, and I want to say by the first week or so we had about 30 folks there, and it was a weird demographic because I had 40-year-old parents with their kids, 25-year-old [gangsters], and 8-year-olds,” said Cook. “Nevertheless, they needed us, so we just loved on them and provided all these resources.”
Word of the program – dubbed “Lights On!” – spread throughout the community, and for the rest of the summer, Cook regularly saw around 150 students attending his events. Sadly, however, this success wouldn’t be enough to stop the violence completely.
Newark Public Schools
Just a few hours after attending an end-of-summer event at West Side, one of Cook’s students was shot and killed by a stray bullet. The vice principal knew he couldn’t wait until next summer to continue his program — he’d have to open it year round.
Only In Your State
And so he did! From then on, Lights On! began running every Friday, providing all manner of fun, safe, and educational activities for boys and girls alike. With an average of 350 students per event, Cook’s hard work was paying off.
Newark Public Schools
“Since we did that…I haven’t lost any more kids to gun violence,” Cook beamed. “We’ve been saving lives, and we’ve been showing the nation and other principals that this can work, and you need this in your city, as well.”
Newark Public Schools
But even with the success of Light On!, West Side High School still had another problem on its hands: bullying. Cook couldn’t understand it. With all the fun and camaraderie built over the years, why were the students picking on one another?
Evidently, it all came down to clothes. Many of the students in the community came from poor families and therefore couldn’t afford to wash their uniforms. Those that came to school wearing dirty clothes were being mercilessly bullied for it.
In fact, the bullying had gotten so bad that some students had actually stopped coming to school. Cook even recalled one incident where a student was arrested because she was too embarrassed to open a bag filled with dirty clothes when a security guard asked her to.
Eventually, Cook learned that a staggering 85 percent of his students had missed at least one day of school over this dirty-clothes bullying. So, as he’d done with his Lights On! program, the vice principal drew up a solution.
After petitioning the Public Service Energy Group (PSEG), Cook received a $20,000 grant in the form of five washers and five dryers for West Side. He then began collecting detergent and other donations from the local community, who were more than happy to lend a hand.
When all was said and done, Cook had converted West Side’s football locker room into a fully stocked laundry room. Now, students could wash their clothes free of charge and end the bullying once and for all.
Catresa McGhee / Facebook
Not only that, but Cook also created a room adjacent to the laundry called the Makerspace. Here, teachers would be stationed both before and after school to engage students in STEM activities as they waited for their clothes to finish in the wash.
News of the vice principal’s heroics soon went viral, and he actually appeared on Ellen twice to share his inspiring story and enlighten others about the struggles that many impoverished schools face.
Cook’s programs have since inspired dozens like them across the country as schools in low-income areas seek to solve the issues of crime, bullying, and poor attendance.