Today on Good Morning America, ABC honored a group of 2017 high school graduates. A senior from Compton, Calif., E.J. Vaughn, was among those recognized and praised by the morning show anchors. Like many disadvantaged students, Vaughn faced down the obstacles of violence, poverty, and a single-parent household en route to his extraordinary acceptance at Harvard.
Vaughn also overcame another hurdle during his childhood. It is one that is a mounting obstacle for American children across the country, and one that carries a shameful stigma — with enough disgrace that Vaughn and his mother lied about it like many other families.
When asked about his father’s absence during his childhood, Vaughn laughed. He admitted that he had frequently told friends that his dad was away on business…in Hawaii…for thirteen years.
Children across the country suffer from a wide variety of problems that can cast a shadow on their academic and social activities. Their self-esteem may suffer when a parent loses a job; if they do not live in the right neighborhood; or cannot afford the latest fads. They may not be able to focus because of medical or psychological conditions — both diagnosed and not.
In many instances of disadvantage, a plethora of government and private programs are available to aid student success. School boards and assistance agencies fund and develop rules and policies to ensure access and completion of a “free and public education” in accordance with government regulations.
Less than 4% of school-age children suffer peanut allergies, but schools from coast to coast assure everyone’s safety by policing meals. Autism rates are on the rise and public schools are prepared for the disability that affects 1-in-45 children. Both are considered “common” enough obstacles that students face almost every day to warrant various levels of aid.
Having an incarcerated parent is not that abnormal anymore.
However, there is a more prevalent disadvantage — Vaughn’s own — that affects 4% of children or almost 3 million across the country. Yet the handicap that drags down 1-in-28 students is still overlooked in terms of assistance and support. As demonstrated by Vaughn’s need to lie about where his father was, it carries such a strong stigma that children frequently have nowhere to turn.
The mass incarceration of America is creating an entirely new disability for students, families, teachers, and administrators to solve. In the absence of a prisoner-parent, students like Vaughn are often forced to face questions alone — to lie, cover up, hide their shame, and deal with the self-esteem issues.
There are no mainstream programs, support groups, or IEP plans that address a student’s needs when a parent is behind bars. Instead, everyone looks the other way. In an age when as many Americans have a criminal record as do have a college degree, it is time to do more. It is time to erase the stigma that accompanies having an incarcerated parent because it is not that abnormal anymore.
The 2.7 million students like E.J. Vaughn should not have to concoct lies about parents on distant business trips because mom or dad is in prison. Policies and programs must be devised and implemented to maintain the connection between child-student and prisoner-parent. This is just one of the many problems with America’s justice and penal systems, but one that needs immediate attention.
Congratulations to E.J. Vaughn on his admission to Harvard. Admitting the truth about his father’s incarceration is a step in the right direction for the many students like him who share a dream of college and of having a parent home from behind the wall.