DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. – Amid hours of noise, the moment Miami Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown(notes) made a connection with the 600 or so fidgety teenagers sitting in front of him at Deerfield Beach Middle School was defined by an almost imperceptible bit of silence.
Brown, standing on the stage of the cafetorium, admitted something he had never openly discussed. He talked about something deeply painful and, when you're young, potentially embarrassing. The kind of thing a kid isn't responsible for, but nonetheless can find emotionally damaging.
"My parents were incarcerated for awhile when I was a kid," said Brown, who also talked about the bad judgment that resulted in being charged with driving under the influence of alcohol this offseason.
For all of Brown's success as a football player and the trappings that go with it, he showed that his childhood and even a moment in his adult life were like that of so many others he was talking to at that moment: imperfect, sometimes sad and even a little embarrassing. Yet he was able to overcome it. He didn't let it consume him.
[Photos: See Miami Dolphin Ronnie Brown in action ]
In the past year, Deerfield Beach Middle has been consumed by media attention because of two horrific incidents of violence. In October 2009, a 15-year-old boy was burned over 75 percent of his body when he was sprayed with rubbing alcohol and lit on fire off-campus by another student who later referred to the victim as one of his best friends. In March, a 15-year-old girl suffered permanent brain damage after being brutally beaten outside of the school by a student from another school who allegedly received a disparaging text message from her about his deceased brother. During the attack, the victim's head was stomped on by steel-toed shoes. Blood marked the spot where the incident happened.
Sadly, the situation is hardly unique. Disenfranchised, disaffected and sometimes disturbed children have been lashing out at fellow students and teachers dating back to at least the Columbine shooting in 1999. According to a video presentation by Teen Truth Live during Brown's school visit, at least 151 students have been killed around the world in school violence since '99. Brown is helping the organization spread its anti-violence message by sharing his 23 pieces of advice – a play on his uniform number – on how to avoid conflict.
One of the methods the school, which is roughly 42 miles from Miami, is using to eliminate violence is having two police cars on campus in the morning and again in the afternoon when children are coming and going. Another is for the 135 staff members to be on constant alert. Principal Christine Flynn, a 21-year veteran of Broward County schools who came to the middle school at the beginning of last school year, is an example. As Brown talks, Flynn roams the rooms, her eyes on alert and her head on a swivel. The muscles in her sinewy neck are obviously tight.
"It's been a long year," said Flynn, whose work to quell other issues at the school has unfortunately been overshadowed.
Surrounded by churches and clean, quiet apartments for retired people, the school seems like a typical cross-section of the community. Of the 1,200 students, roughly a third are there for two magnet programs, including one that feeds the highly regarded International Baccalaureate program at the high school level. The rest of the student body consists of children who, rather than pour energy into subjects like math and English, are steadily instructed about "core values, respect and character traits" as Flynn put it.
"We used to have fights here all the time," teacher Seitu Smith said. "Ms. Flynn has done a lot to solve that. It's too bad these other things happened because she's done so much."
But as Brown, motivational speaker J.C. Pohl of Teen Truth Live and other instructors pointed out, all that work would be much easier if kids could be comfortable owning up and finding help.
The hard part is getting kids to understand that while their problems may be new and difficult for them, the problems aren't so unique. Brown bridged that gap with his admission. By the end of the day, others were doing the same. At one moment, an eighth-grade girl defiantly talked about how she wouldn't let other people disrespect her. By the end of the class, she admitted that she had once fractured another girl's face in a fight and that state-ordered anger management classes she's taking now aren't working for her.
On the other side of the class, 15-year-old Nick Mark took similar inspiration from Brown and the others.
"All this has been so negative to our school, for Ronnie Brown to come to our school was so amazing," Mark said. "It was like Christmas for me, man. It inspired me. It will get through [to the students] because it will tell them that it's not too late. You can still jump back, look at Ronnie Brown. … The kids can relate to that because he had a hard time when he was a kid just like me. I don't have that [many] friends here. I have two or three and I don't get that good grades, so I can relate to that. What Ronnie said really inspired me."
Aside from Brown, who was joined by former Dolphins teammate Jason Taylor(notes), the 90-minute main presentation mostly featured Pohl talking and showing his film on teen violence. As a senior at the University of Santa Clara in 1999, Pohl was inspired by the Columbine shooting to do a film that was essentially shot by high school students. The film connects strongly with the audience as they watch other kids in their age range talking about the challenges of fitting in and dealing with stress.
That said, the kids at Deerfield Beach Middle have gotten firsthand lessons. The film showed them how to deal with the situation, but it's still after the fact.
"The thing that struck me most was how the kid got mad and how he should have talked to someone, not bring a gun to school," said 13-year-old Michael Simpson, referring to a moment from the film by Pohl. "He should have got it out rather than keep it in, like in a bottle. You know how when you heat up water in a bottle it sometimes explodes? That's sometimes what happens when you keep things in. That's what I saw in the movie."
What happened last year at this school remains in Simpson's mind.
"It affected me because I'm not sure if somebody is going to do that to me, too," said Simpson, who said he has been teased because he's in the magnet program. "What happens to IB kids is they get bullied and they get called names."
That's one of the many things that all kids seem to endure. At one point during his speech, Pohl asked the kids to stand up if they had ever been "punched, kicked, tripped or shoved on purpose." In each of the two sessions, more than 90 percent of the kids in the audience stood up. Pohl said he has seen the same response in school after school in front of the more than 500,000 kids he has spoken to over the years.
While that may seem overwhelming, the message Tuesday was that a solution isn't far away. In fact, it doesn't take much to get kids to open up. One line from someone like Brown is enough to make the connection.
"I'm almost speechless because of what was able to happen for our students [Tuesday]," Flynn said.
Most importantly, even if it was just for a moment, Brown left them speechless as well.
As Brown said at one point, "There's a lot more ways to do it than just that."
- Ronnie Brown