Thank you, Ambassador [Andrew] Young, for those kind words, and for your service to our nation. It’s an honor to stand with you tonight, and a privilege to join with so many exemplary leaders – including Atlanta’s outstanding Mayor, Kasim Reed; Fulton County’s dedicated District Attorney, Paul Howard; and our honorary Co-Chairs – in celebrating the achievements of tonight’s distinguished awardees.
I’d particularly like to thank T.J. Holmes for guiding us through this evening’s program; President-Elect [Henry] Kelly, Chairman [Gregory] Hawkins, CEO John Grant, and the entire Board of Directors of the 100 Black Men of Atlanta; and all of the members, panelists, and participants who have made this inaugural Leadership Summit such a resounding success.
It’s a pleasure to be among so many good friends and critical partners, including Dr. [Willie] Clemons – a founding member of this chapter, Coordinator and Senior Advisor for this conference, and – along with my wife, Dr. Sharon Malone – a proud native of Mobile, Alabama. Dr. and Mrs. Clemons have been close with Sharon’s family and me for many years – and were very special to my late sister-in-law, the remarkable Vivian Malone Jones. As some of you may know, in 1963 – with the help of my predecessor, Attorney General Robert Kennedy – Vivian integrated the University of Alabama, and was the first African American student to graduate from it. She went on to a career in civil rights and environmental justice – and it was this shared passion for ensuring equality and expanding opportunity that inspired her lifelong friendship with Dr. Clemons and his wife. It’s great to see them here tonight.
I know you’ve tackled an ambitious agenda since this Summit convened yesterday afternoon. You’ve heard from distinguished speakers like my good friends Congressman John Lewis and Congressman David Scott – along with the most persuasive speaker I know, my wife, Sharon. You’ve held discussions about political issues, health and wellness, and the role of women in the entertainment industry. You’ve reflected on wealth and financial management, spoken with some of tomorrow’s aspiring leaders, and even hosted an educational forum. And, tonight, you’ve come together to recognize a select few who exemplify this organization’s highest ideals.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to take part this evening – and, especially, for the chance to join in the important conversation you’ve been having. I appreciate your engagement, and applaud your service to “challenged communities” throughout this area. And I am particularly eager to discuss the ways in which today’s Justice Department is helping to fulfill the responsibilities we all share: confronting some of our nation’s most intractable challenges; empowering the next generation of Americans; and helping to protect our children from the violence that already has stolen too many promising futures.
Your commitment to this work – and to our nation’s young people – is clear. Your efforts are making a difference across Atlanta. And your guidance is helping young people seize the chance to determine the course of their own lives and to fulfill their potential.
Through signature initiatives like Project Success and the B.E.S.T. Academy for Boys, you’re providing invaluable mentorship to help students make the most of the educational opportunities before them. Over the past five years, through the Atlanta Football Classic – which, I’m told, is on track to become the number-one football classic in the country – you’ve generated more than $125 million for the Georgia economy, and have provided substantial support to schools like Tennessee State and Florida A&M. Through your annual Health Fair, you’ve helped to detect ailments like cancer, heart disease, and hypertension – and have fought to ensure the health and wellness of countless members of your community. And through leadership training events like this one – not to mention your post-secondary programs and the Collegiate 100 – you are fostering the kind of public engagement and economic development skills that will have a profound impact for generations to come.
Now, especially in this time of economic hardship – when government budgets are on the chopping block, and so many educational institutions, nonprofits, and community service organizations have seen their funding shrink dramatically – I know this work has, in many ways, never been more difficult. But – as recent studies show – it’s also never been more urgent.
According to a 2010 study compiled by the Schott Foundation – here in Georgia, the high school graduation rate for black males is 43 percent – while, for their white peers, it is 62 percent. Both of these numbers lag behind the national average. And even more disturbingly, this shocking racial gap – of nearly 20 points – is actually narrower than the 31-point disparity we see at the national level. Both sets of these statistics are simply unacceptable. Keeping our youth involved and in school and on track are absolute necessities. And as a nation we are not doing the job as well as we should.
I know that keeping students engaged and on the right path is about more than just graduation rates. It’s also about helping our children build an attitude that is geared for success. But it’s also about disrupting what’s become known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which – in too many places throughout this nation – transforms our schools from doorways to opportunity into gateways to the correctional system.
Fortunately, our understanding of this pernicious phenomenon – and what we can do about it – is improving. Research has indicated that the disciplinary measures employed and the opportunities offered in our schools can have an impact on incarceration later in life. We’ve seen the potential damage that unnecessarily exposing youth to our juvenile justice system can cause. We’ve observed that suspension is too often the first step on the path toward incarceration. And we’ve learned that suspensions and expulsions during critical years can impact a student’s chances of later success.
This knowledge can – and must – empower us to do better. Yet in spite of these findings, in too many places, our children continue to be deprived of educational opportunities as a form of punishment – often for minor infractions or for violations of ineffective, and widely criticized, zero-tolerance policies. Compounding this problem, we’ve often seen that students of color, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and students with special needs are disproportionately likely to be suspended or expelled.
A study conducted in Texas just last year found that minority and special needs children who caused what are termed “emotional disturbances” were more likely than white students to be disciplined. In fact, 83 per cent of African American male students and 74 per cent of Hispanic male students ended up in trouble and suspended for some period of time. Among all students suspensions averaged about two days per offense. Minority students facing discipline for the first time tended to be given harsher out of school suspensions, rather than in school suspensions, more often than their white counterparts. Tellingly, 97 per cent of all suspensions were discretionary and reflected the administrator’s discipline philosophy as much as the student’s behavior.
This is, quite simply, unacceptable. It is counterproductive. And there is no reason to believe that what was found in Texas is different than other parts of the country. After being suspended students were consequently more likely to repeat a grade or drop out more than their less sanctioned fellow students. These same students had lower rates of graduation and higher rates of later criminal activity.
These unnecessary and destructive policies must be changed. And it’s why we’re sharing what we’ve learned and relying on organizations like 100 Black Men – here in Atlanta and across the country – to engage with educators as well as students, and to implement the kind of holistic mentoring and outreach programs that can help to break this destructive policy cycle.
Of course, this is only one of the many challenges that our young people must contend with in today’s world. Another area that deserves greater focus and attention is the impact of childhood exposure to violence.
Like many of you, I am a proud parent. And, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my three teenagers, it’s that devices like computers and “smartphones” can allow the younger generation to stay more connected – to one another, and to the world of cyberspace – than ever before.
But the implications of this aren’t always positive. Each day – on television, in the movies, and increasingly over the Internet – our children are inundated with images of violence. Many are also exposed first hand – both as witnesses and victims – to crime and abuse within their communities, including their own homes and schools. And we now know that they can carry these traumatic experiences – and the difficulties they cause – with them throughout their lives.
In late 2009, the Justice Department released findings from our National Survey on Children Exposed to Violence, the first comprehensive study of its kind. The survey found that that the majority of our children – more than 60 percent – have been exposed to crime, abuse, and violence. It showed that two in five children have experienced direct violence more than once over the course of a year, and nearly three in ten were assaulted at least once during that period. Ten percent of children have suffered some form of abuse or neglect, and one in sixteen has been victimized sexually. In measuring indirect exposure, the study found that one in four children have witnessed a violent act, with many seeing one family member assault another.
This was a much-needed wake-up call for the Department – and, I know, for many of you. It served as a reminder that this problem affects each one of us – and that effectively addressing it must become our shared concern and calling.
But the good news is that, today, there is good cause for optimism. Research has indicated that early intervention is effective in countering the effects of violence. Quality programs, that include effective mentoring, have shown clear benefits in enhancing resiliency and fostering healthy child development – benefits that extend to children who’ve suffered frequent exposure to violence.
In other words, it’s within our power – within your power – to help the kids who need us most.
For me, this cause has been both a personal and professional concern for decades. As a prosecutor, as a judge, as a U.S. Attorney, and as the Deputy Attorney General, addressing the causes and remedying consequences of youth violence was at the forefront of my work. Today, as Attorney General and as a parent, it remains a top priority.
I’m proud to say that the Department of Justice has made an historic commitment to this work. For the first time in history, the Department is directing significant resources for the express purpose of reducing childhood exposure to violence and raising awareness of its ramifications. We’re advancing scientific inquiry on its causes and characteristics. And we’re exploring ways to counter its negative impact.
Through the Department’s landmark Defending Childhood Initiative – which I launched in 2010 – along with our National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, we’re working alongside key stakeholders to develop strategies for addressing violence in the communities where they’ll be implemented. Thanks to exhaustive research conducted by the Department’s Office of Justice Programs, we’re developing a better understanding of youth violence, crime, and juvenile justice issues, and the impacts they can have on our young people. And in close partnership with state and local officials, academics, front-line practitioners – and organizations like the 100 Black Men of Atlanta – we are reaching out, raising awareness, and fighting to make a difference in communities across the country.
I applaud the strong commitment that each of you has brought to this work. You are rallying local leaders to take ownership of community problems; acting not only as role models, but as mentors, for young people with the potential and desire to succeed; and working to help create the opportunities that all of our children deserve. And this evening, as we gather to celebrate the successes of the past year – and to pay tribute to these distinguished awardees – each of us must personally pledge to take these efforts to the next level.
If we do, I am confident that we can write a bold new chapter in our American story. And we can safeguard our children and transform our nation for the better – one city, one community, and one child at a time.
The task before us is not new to us. We must protect and save the next generation. We must protect and save our future. We must make a priority the welfare of our children. By having logical and fair school disciplinary policies and by intervening effectively in the lives of youth exposed to violence, we can increase the chances of positive outcomes. We must dedicate ourselves to these and other efforts in order to insure that the hard won progress achieved by earlier generations and that has made our own lives so much less difficult, is passed on to all of our community’s children. This is part of our historical legacy and ongoing responsibility. In this effort we cannot afford to fail and - working together - we will not.
Thank you, once again, for all that you do – and for the opportunity to join you here tonight. I look forward to working with all of you – as partners – in the effort in which we must engage to save our children.