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Posted: Oct 3, 2005 09:50


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By: Lon Woodbury

As I write this in mid September of 2005, our TV screens are filled with a panorama of images from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast as the victims recover from the disaster left by hurricane Katrina. The images on our TV screens, or newspapers and the Internet, range from tragic, to heroic, to deplorable.

The tragedy of this natural disaster is almost unbelievable as we witness firsthand, the deaths, property destruction, families separated by the destruction and countless stories of homelessness. However, the response from throughout this country and other countries is nothing less than heroic. As soon as the winds died down, loads of food, water and medicine were delivered from all over the country, and offers of housing for those who had lost everything also poured in from all over the country. In addition, before public officials could even announce their grand designs for rebuilding, individuals and local businesses in New Orleans and elsewhere were already busy rebuilding amidst the devastation along the coast and despite warnings of the approach of another hurricane.

The deplorable images floating across our TV screens included groups of citizens fleeing the city and then being turned back at the city border by officials at gunpoint, buses that officials planned to use for evacuation were flooded and useless, looting, evacuation centers filled with people waiting days for transportation in a violent and deteriorating environment. With reports of badly needed supplies being refused entrance into the city, instant blame and finger pointing between local, State and Federal officials began as each struggled for the authority to control relief efforts and create photo opportunities that degenerated into partisan sniping.

In general, through unexpected breakdowns in communications and issuing conflicting or counter-productive decisions, it was the public agencies that collapsed and/or were impotent in the immediate aftermath of this almost unprecedented emergency. It was the voluntary and private efforts that led the way to effective, immediate person to person relief. Of course there were exceptions, the National Guard troops seemed to have performed very well once they arrived and we saw many images of those New Orleans police who still remained on duty tracking down and arresting the violent looters. Contrary to civil agencies, these public institutions are specifically designed to handle volatile situations. Perhaps the best comparison of these two types of immediate response were the images of truck loads of supplies from the Red Cross and Salvation Army, two private and voluntary organizations, perched on the edge of New Orleans immediately after Katrina passed. They were denied entry into the city by public officials who seemed to fear that allowing them entrance would encourage people to remain in the city instead of following the official evacuation plan. The end result was the delayed arrival of supplies and resources the people desperately needed for what seemed to be confused reasoning, perhaps with disastrous consequences.

How does this confused response to the hurricane relate to the network of Emotional Growth/Therapeutic Schools and Programs? I think the aftermath of Katrina is a microcosm of the strengths and weaknesses of our society. These private parent-choice schools and programs we work with exist only because of the inability of public institutions to meet the volatile needs of many struggling teens. A majority, and perhaps an overwhelming majority, of the students enrolled in private parent-choice schools and programs are there because interventions by psychiatric hospitals, Juvenile Justice, Health and Welfare agencies, Schools and other major institutions and commonly accepted interventions were failures. Usually, parents turn to a private school or program only after everything else has failed. Private placement into these expensive schools and programs is usually a last resort. If public institutions and mainstream mental health resources had managed to be more successful in the past, or if they ever learn how to effectively meet the volatile needs of struggling teens, the network of private parent-choice schools and programs would never have come into existence, nor could it survive.

The existence of struggling teens in this country is not covered with the same television drama as caused by hurricane Katrina, but there seems to be a similar pattern of response to the volatile needs of struggling teens by public agencies and private individuals and organizations. That is, private schools and programs have the flexibility to meet the individual needs of the students just like the relief efforts of individuals and private organizations were more successful in meeting the immediate needs of the hurricane victims. At the same time, public institutions working with struggling teens all too often get mired down in turf battles, red tape, the slowness of centralized control and mandated “best practices,” just as the authorities in New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast had to wait for “orders from above” and the result of power struggles before they were able to do their public job.

Since the early days of this country in the 19th century, observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville, in his famous book Democracy in America, found that it was the ability to create voluntary groups spontaneously that really accomplished things in America. This is still true, as demonstrated by the overwhelming and effective outpouring of help from average Americans to help the hurricane victims, as opposed to initial public institution impotence. And, this ability to meet the individual and immediate needs of struggling teens is true in the growth of the network of private residential schools and programs. These, by and large, have been created by educational visionaries who set out to create a school or program that better served the volatile needs of struggling teens after concluding that many struggling teens were being ill-served by existing public institutions.

Sometimes, the best way public agencies can help solve a problem is to get out of the way and allow individual Americans to step forward to do what needs to be done. At least in emergency situations, the public sector’s most effective role often is as facilitators rather than the usual bureaucratic command and control.

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