Friday, September 15, 2023

Los Angles Times' poignant feature on rural youth in California's far north state

Hailey Branson-Potts, a terrific story teller who works as a metro reporter for the Los Angeles Times, filed her second big story this season out of Modoc County, in the state's far northeast corner.  The digital headline is "There's a hidden crisis among California's rural kids. Would this teen make it?"  

"This teen" is Linda Plumlee, a recent high school graduate from Modoc who has been an emancipated minor for several years.  This fall, she's off to UC Berkeley--against all odds.  

Plumlee, it turns out, is just one of the more extraordinary stories among rural California teens facing uphill battles to stay in school, keep roofs over their heads, and eat.  Here's the part of Branson-Potts feature that provides critical context:  
About eight years ago, educators in Modoc County realized they had a serious problem.

Students kept melting down, becoming so angry or disruptive that they had to be pulled from classrooms. The county’s suspension rate was about three times higher than the state average, and students were twice as likely as those statewide to be chronically absent.

“We realized we were dealing with something bigger than behavior,” said Misti Norby, deputy superintendent of the Modoc County Office of Education. “We were like, what’s going on with our kids?”

Teachers across Modoc County assessed their students, relying on a fact of small-town life that can be both a blessing and a curse: everyone knows everyone’s business. They did an informal, anonymous tally of what are called adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, which include abuse or neglect; a parent’s death, incarceration or divorce; and mental illness or substance abuse in the home.

About 58% of kids in Modoc County, Norby said, were believed to have four or more ACEs, putting them at significantly higher risk later in life of suicide, substance abuse, chronic health problems and unemployment.

“It was very eye opening,” Norby said. “We now function on: We know they have trauma. Somewhere. Somehow.”

Models consistently show the state’s highest rates of childhood trauma are in rural Northern California, where there is a dire shortage of both primary care and mental-health care providers.

The gun violence and poverty experienced by young people in some urban neighborhoods is well-documented in the media and popular culture. But these issues are as present, if not even more common, in rural areas. While homicide rates are lower, suicide rates are generally much higher in rural than urban counties.

Home to just 8,500 people, Modoc County is one of California’s poorest, with a fifth of the population living in poverty.

* * * 

Now, when social workers or other county officials learn that a child has experienced a major trauma, they email Norby, who then emails the child’s school district.

She provides no details about the incident. Just a name and the words: “Handle with care.”

Also, here's an interesting vignette of life for teens in rural Modoc: 

Alturas was where [Plumlee] and her friends cruised Main Street, cracking jokes and dreaming about the future. It was where teachers and school counselors spent countless hours keeping her spirits up through the emancipation process.

Most stores and restaurants close by 8 p.m. There’s the single-screen Niles movie theater on Main Street — but it only screens once a day on weekends.

Teenagers go hiking, hunting or fishing in the nearby mountains. They party and drink. Or they drive 100 miles to shop in Klamath Falls, Ore. — where the nearest Walmart is.

Their lives revolve around school: sports, band, Future Farmers of America, drama club.

Don't miss this entire feature, which appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times print edition on Sept. 16. 

1 comment:

Natalie M. said...

Professor Pruitt, I read this article when it came out in the LA Times and saw you were quoted in it! In furthering our class discussion from this week, I wonder what the best solution is for bettering the resources and opportunities in schools in rural Northern California. Often the solution that I envision is restructuring our teacher-compensation system. If rural public schools incentivized teachers by paying them disproportionately more than urban schools, would teachers be inclined to relocate? While it is likely a short-term solution, I think it is good that teachers are being hired even if they do not have the full list of credentials to teach. For example, my partner's little sister graduated from Chico State this spring and got a job teaching students who have learning disabilities, despite having no credentials. She is teaching in the East Bay, where even urban schools these days are underfunded and understaffed. As a society I think we need to prioritize education more. What if we treated educators like how we regard American football players, for example?