How One Charter School Student is Transforming Youth Relationships with Police

Meet Rashaud Red
Rashaud Red grew up as the son of a single mother in what he describes as a “really tough neighborhood” in south Baton Rouge, La. His mother, Avis, toiled tirelessly to provide for Rashaud and his three siblings, but the family still struggled to make ends meet. Despite his violent surroundings and attending failing public schools, Avis instilled in her son unshakeable values, and she shielded him and his siblings from the troubles of the community in which they lived.

Over time, his mother’s hard work paid off. They moved to a safer neighborhood, and Rashaud was accepted to Mentorship Academy, the largest of 15 charter schools in East Baton Rouge Parish and home to 500 students who take part in a challenging STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) curriculum. In 2014, the number of failing public schools doubled in the parish, while Mentorship Academy continued to show marked academic improvement.

Switching from deteriorating public schools to Mentorship Academy made a profound impact upon Rashaud’s life. Here, learning is tailored to each student’s interests and strengths, and the charter school is keenly focused on the development of the whole person.

“It’s a really innovative school. The technology integration and the project-based learning are taking us to another level,” Rashaud explains. “We are doing the things that we hope future public schools will do. Mentorship Academy has definitely been a motivator in my life.”

Their unique approach is carried out by talented, dedicated educators who take a sincere interest in the welfare and future of their students. Many teachers stay at the school well past the final bell, with several going home each night after 8 p.m., so that they might help students with homework or extracurricular activities.

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Rashaud Red / Photo: YouTube

The Making of a Tedx Talk
A few months ago, Rashaud was one of those students. Late one evening, he asked his graphic design teacher, Casy Leatherman, if he could use a classroom for the evening to record a speech. When Mrs. Leatherman inquired as to why, Rashaud explained that he wanted to audition for a Tedx Talk at nearby Louisiana State University. He hoped to share an idea that he had previously imagined in an English class – a total transformation of the relationship between police and the underprivileged communities they serve, not unlike the one where he once grew up.

“Part of the assignment was to consider how something could create a positive change for society. Issues surrounding police encounters with specific groups and racial tension dominate the media. All of our students see it and even experience it. Rashaud saw a way to help,” Leatherman said. “Around this same time, another teacher was spreading the word about the TEDx LSU call for participants. Rashaud made the decision that his idea was worthy of sharing with a larger audience than just that of his English class.”

The concept was simple: select 15 at-risk teenagers and 15 police officers who patrol their neighborhoods. Match each kid with a cop. Create a safe, trustworthy environment where they can talk to each other not as adversaries, but instead, as human beings. Nothing is off limits; they can ask each other whatever they want. At the end of the program, the pair would perform a service project, such as building a house or serving at a soup kitchen. After the program is complete, participants are encouraged to stay in touch with their partners and keep open lines of communication.

Mrs. Leatherman was touched. “Rashaud has drive and genuine empathy. I have seen drive diminish some student’s ability to use caution and consideration when trying to reach their goals, but Rashaud is extremely thoughtful,” she said.

So, she stayed with him as he recorded his audition tape, editing words here and there and helping him with his delivery. They submitted the video – which was, in teenage tradition, due at midnight that evening – and hoped for the best.

They soon learned that Rashaud’s speech was accepted and that he would be able to propose his idea – what he calls the “I Am More” initiative – in front of hundreds of Louisiana’s most influential leaders. Mrs. Leatherman spent many nights and weekends working with Rashaud to improve and memorize the speech.

Their hard work paid off. Rashaud Red brought his teacher to tears when she watched him give a speech so moving that after 10 short minutes, the crowd rose to their feet in thunderous applause in praise of TedX Talk’s youngest speaker. His speech was lauded as the best of the entire event.

Getting with the Program
Suddenly, there was an outpouring of community support, and aside from his own household, there was no greater ally than his school, Mentorship Academy. Instead of simply accepting that Rashaud gave a rousing speech about a worthy cause and leaving it at that, educators rallied around him to help him make it happen. In addition to providing guidance in handling the influx in interest surrounding “I Am More,” Mentorship Academy teachers have fully embraced the project, spending countless hours structuring the program to ensure it is a success.

“Teachers have been extremely supportive. To see a student go above and beyond in such an inspiring way is what every teacher dreams for all of their students so you can imagine this has been a truly gratifying experience for the entire school,” Leatherman said.

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Boosted by the support of Mentorship Academy, Rashaud worked with his teachers to select the students who would participate in their inaugural “meet up” with law enforcement. He took particular interest in those who were, in his eyes, the most at-risk – his classmates who were rumored to be affiliated with gangs or those on the cusp of gang membership.

He also contacted the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination (BRAVE) program, a project of the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s office, to recruit cops to participate in the event. They were more than happy to oblige.

“[BRAVE] had been approaching the issue in such a different way. The way I was approaching it, however, was on a smaller scale,” Rashaud explained. “They would usually go to a school, and there was a big auditorium filled with kids. And they would have these criminals get up on the microphone and say, ‘You know what, this was me [as a criminal]. Don’t do this.’ And they weren’t really getting to kids that way.”

Rashaud says that BRAVE was eager to collaborate with him to offer a one-on-one alternative that, instead of simply lecturing to kids, attempted to foster a real dialogue. And oftentimes, the cops were interacting with students who were, truly, most at-risk.

But he still had one audience left to convince: his peers.

“The general response from students has been overwhelmingly positive, although at first, some were skeptical. Many students have encountered individuals and programs intended to help with various social and economic problems they face on a day-to-day basis and sometimes, they simply don’t work or don’t live up to the students’ expectations,” Leatherman said. “Some have become numb. When a couple of the students were approached by Rashaud and asked to participate, they had a lot of questions and concerns.”

These hesitations ranged from “Why does it matter if we talk to the police or not?” to “Will anyone else know I’m doing this?” to “They don’t need to know my name or anything, right?” Rashaud indicated he fully understood their trepidations and promised he’d create an environment where they felt safe to communicate openly and honestly.

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Photo: I Am More

“After Rashaud got to meet with the group of students and talk through what the initiative was really about, they really got on board. As word spread, it seemed like all of the kids wanted to get involved, even ones who were never approached,” Leatherman said. “They started coming up with their ideas and ways they wanted to contribute. The initiative really seemed to take on a life of its own in an amazing way.”

And so, a few weeks ago, under the supervision of Mentorship Academy and the leadership of Rashaud Red, the school hosted its first “I Am More” meet-up. There, he and his teachers paired each student with a law enforcement officer. They talked about their interests and shared ideas on how to improve the community in which they both lived.

Before the event, Rashaud said the biggest misconception that minority communities maintained about law enforcement was that “they’re all deceitful and they’re all out to get [minority youth].” Instead, the cops attending – both white and black – engaged wholeheartedly with the kids, telling their life stories and laughing together. This, Rashaud says, humanized the police officers to the students.

And he acknowledges that cops have their own views of at-risk youth in urban communities, too. “I think many of them that believe that we don’t want more than what we have, that we all want the same things. We all want to live a life of crime. We are gonna be like our parents. We’re gonna be like our cousins.”

This, Rashaud says, is not accurate and an opinion he hopes to transform. He also concedes, however, that some in these communities do not offer the best presentation – he cites poor manners and unbecoming clothing choices as examples – to indicate their true intentions of self-betterment and economic mobility.

Challenging these misunderstandings has opened the eyes of both law enforcement and the students who have taken part in “I Am More.”

Photo: I Am More

“I met this kid who had his pants sagging. He wasn’t necessarily the kid everybody thought would be bright. He sat down and he gave his ‘thesis’ on why there was so much crime and how we could fix it,” Rashaud said. “It surprised every officer in there. They looked at him in a different way. I think he grew from it, because I think he figured, ‘My appearance is really affecting how people view me.’ And the police officers took away that they cannot always look at them and assume so much about them.”

And his story isn’t unique. Every student and officer walked away from the experience with an eager heart and open mind to make their community safer.

They formed real bonds, too. Rashaud was pleasantly surprised to receive a text message from a classmate that contained a photograph she took with her law enforcement partner. The two had seen each other at a local donut shop, and she immediately ran up to him to hug him. These kinds of relationships, Rashaud hopes, will persevere.

“I Am More” doesn’t stop with Mentorship Academy. Instead, Rashaud plans to host more of these sessions at his school in the months to come, and he hopes that his program will spread to others across East Baton Rouge Parish and, eventually, the state and nation.

“My short term goal is to have [“I Am More”] in every school in East Baton Rouge Parish. I really want every police department in Louisiana to be a part of it, too,” Rashaud said.

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Photo: I Am More

What a Difference a School Makes
The 17-year-old credits not only his mother for her great sacrifice to protect him and provide him with a better life, but also his education at Mentorship Academy. He cites their innovative and collaborative learning processes, as well as the dedication of the teachers who are truly invested in good outcomes for those they educate.

His mentor, Mrs. Leatherman, agrees. “Mentorship Academy is a STEAM school but it is much more than what the acronym implies. We aren’t just concerned with what students learn, but how they learn. Students build their knowledge through experience with projects and subject matter that puts them at the heart of modern industry. Not only are our teachers knowledgeable in his or her given subjects, they are also passionate. They are open to and proponents of evolution in the field of education. As we progress as a society, our educational system and those in it must progress with it and I feel our teachers are doing just that.”

And Mrs. Leatherman says the charter school addresses the challenges facing at-risk youth in underserved communities in a unique, tailored way. This approach, she believes, helps to intercept these students at the most vulnerable points in their lives in, at times, truly dire situations.

“Students are human. They are susceptible to all of the needs and temptations that any adult is but with less control for a myriad of reasons. Education helps give some of that control back. Perspective, hope and support are some of the best tools we as educators can provide,” she said.

Becoming More
With such an engaging personality and an insatiable thirst for success, one could assume that Rashaud looks forward to a life in public service. After all, “making a difference” is often a key motivation for those who run for office, and he’s already changing lives. Politics just seems like a natural fit.

But, the 17-year-old has other aspirations. After college, Rashaud would like to become a doctor – his initial interests are psychiatry and dermatology – so that he can continue to help others, but this time, he’ll be focused on their health.

In a way, that’s what makes Rashaud’s story so remarkable. His commitment to improving his community is earnest; he expects no personal gain. Instead, he genuinely seeks to make his hometown a safer place to live, as well as to encourage his peers to achieve their dreams.

And with the constant support of his mother and the unwavering dedication from the educators who love him, he is doing just that. The lives of his classmates are demonstrably better because of Rashaud’s efforts, and according to Leatherman, his accomplishments have inspired his friends to make goals and work toward them.

Rashaud hopes that no matter what becomes of his academic aspirations, “I Am More” will continue to grow in communities where law enforcement and students work together to powerfully change their shared experience.

“The youth can work on giving people more reasons to not assume they’re doing something horrible. I think we should gravitate toward things that are more positive. We need to give people more of a reason to think we are bigger than our circumstances,” Rashaud explained.

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Photo: I Am More

Police, he says, should dedicate more time and resources to developing programs like “I Am More” that nurture relationships between law enforcement and the communities they represent. He supports passing legislation to mandate such initiatives and allocate a portion of law enforcement funding for it.

Most importantly, Rashaud argues, both sides must make real efforts to maintain their relationships and understand each other. Other community partners, including charitable non-profits, want to work with “I Am More” to provide a service component to the program, helping law enforcement and at-risk youth to form even deeper bonds working together on a project.

And at the heart of “I Am More” is a young man who decided that he was more – more than a rough neighborhood, more than a failing school, more than an at-risk lifestyle. Thanks to his hard work, many others are realizing it, too.

Ellen Carmichael is president of The Lafayette Company, a Washington, D.C.-based political consulting firm. She has served as a senior communications adviser for a Republican presidential campaign, Members of Congress and statewide elected officials. Follow her on Twitter @ellencarmichael.

Charter Schools, Criminal Justice Reform, Ellen Carmichael, Louisiana
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Santorum’s attack on all immigration levels comes at a time when fewer immigrants are entering the U.S. illegally, and those here illegally – who make up roughly 5 percent of the American workforce – are increasingly older and more established.

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Here’s an interesting thought experiment. Combine the fiery Culture War 4.0 experience with the immigration rhetoric, the trade skepticism, and the anti-globalist flavor of current Republican populists. Which candidate from the past two decades really matches up best with their priorities and temperament? If you said Pat Buchanan 1996, you might be right.

Read more from Domenech at The Federalist.