Helping Youth Tell the Truth

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The truth hurts sometimes, but it shouldn’t hurt the truth tellers. At least that’s what we’ve been led to believe. Not so for Tiffany Schley, the valedictorian of a Brooklyn high school, who was denied her diploma after using her air time at graduation to tell school officials and parents that she and her peers were graduating in spite of, not because of, the school system.

The New York Daily News story on June 26 said the school was holding Tiffany’s diploma “until she says she’s sorry.” It quoted the city education department’s spokesperson as saying, “We feel her schoolmates are deserving of an apology.”

But her classmates had applauded her outcry. So had some of the teachers. Tiffany did not apologize.

“I was speaking for my peers,” she told the Daily News. “We’ve been living with this for four years.”

Tiffany was not concerned only about cutbacks in extracurricular activities. Her criticisms speak to a series of fundamental failures that plague the educational system: overcrowded classes, a high annual turnover in teachers and principals, textbook shortages, unqualified teachers and, topping it off, “uncaring administrators who refuse to meet with students to discuss the school’s problems.” That’s why, I suspect, Tiffany chose to deliver her critique in public.

What’s going on? By almost any form of accounting, it seems safe to say that for every student getting a good education in this country, there is at least one student being locked in, pushed out, disrespected or dumbed down. Now they are being shut down when they try to talk about it.

The answer these days seems to be to break down the big impersonal high schools and create small schools and small learning communities where we can control the violence, restore respect and get back to learning. Sounds good. Except that Tiffany’s alma mater, the High School of Legal Studies, is a small school. It is one of three small schools created in 1996 when Eastern District High was dismantled.

The solution to this problem isn’t just system reform. It’s big time advocacy fueled not by adults, but by young people. I pause every time one of those “truth” campaign ads funded by the American Legacy Foundation comes on television, because I admire the way young people have been empowered with the knowledge to inform others and the courage to pull back the curtains on the tobacco industry.

I continue to be impressed by the policy and media impact of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in California, which challenges policy-makers with bitterly cold, painfully hard facts. I am constantly humbled by the significant systems change ROCA, a grass-roots youth-serving agency based in Chelsea, Mass., has accomplished by quietly inviting city leaders to sit in “Peace Circles” and connect face to face with young people.

There need to be more well-funded “truth” campaigns that take on issues beyond tobacco. We need to equip more youth like Tiffany to speak out against disparities they see in their schools and communities.

We checked in with the Daily News for an update. Far from apologizing for her statements, Tiffany was applauded by the community and recognized by the mayor for her courage. The principal, not Tiffany, was asked to apologize.

The story ended well for Tiffany. But there is clearly more that can be done to ensure that the thousands of other young people like her get their chance to pull back the curtain, report the facts and demand answers without fear of reprimand. I want them to be backed by deep-pocket advocates and supported by seasoned youth workers who understand that a part of their job is helping young people take action.

I’ve been talking with people lately about standards and practices and the “after-school/out-of-school/youth-development/expanded-learning-opportunities” system. To keep my perspective, I have a copy of Great Britain’s National Occupational Standards for Youth Work by the bedside. It’s comforting to turn to a government-backed document to reaffirm my belief that one true purpose of youth work is not to staff out-of-school programs, but to help young people gain voice, influence and a place in society.

These closing thoughts are courtesy of Her Majesty’s youth service agency:

“The values that underpin Youth Work derive from a clear understanding of and commitment to learning and development, equality of opportunity, social inclusion, and the educational and social importance of choice, freedom, responsibility and justice.”

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. This column and links to related readings are available at