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From Lost to Lyric: Helping Trauma-Impacted Youth Break the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Updated: Jun 11

Photo by Emiliano Bar on Unsplash

The time's 2:30 am and I'm reflecting. I'm hoping the silence of night brings clarity to the day, as I've had much to absorb. Another young person referred to our music studio project tells us they have been suspended from school. And it's like looking around this darkened room I can't help but think back to a conversation I had with a head of adult probation services and in private discussing this term they referred to as a school-to-prison pipeline.

Have you ever had those occasions when you're looking for your house key, searching up and down the house, throwing this, kicking over that, blaming every member of the household including the cat for taking your key, for it to only show up in the space that's been looking you in your face the whole time!

I think I've had this moment for years working with young people known to the criminal justice system, where it's only in recent times I've discovered the 'key' that's been looking me in my face the whole time.

Nearly all of the young people who I have worked with who are experienced with the criminal justice system often have very similar traits such as; experienced some early trauma such as the death of a close one or the effects of an ineffective or inactive parent, being suspended/expelled from mainstream school, having learning needs such as difficulties with reading and writing, and experience with social services. An interesting fact I came across is that nearly 25% of the adult prison population has previously been in care, and nearly 50% of under-21-year-olds in contact with the criminal justice system have spent time in care.

Now if I were to put things into some rough kind of order based on my 'experiences' I would say, these young people experience an early trauma, they enter the school system with these unaddressed traumas, and in school, they develop behavioural difficulties such as displays of anger. School expells/ suspends them, and they miss out on education, sometimes for months sometimes longer, I've personally worked with kids out of education for over 1 year and the impacts is that they struggle with communication due to the lack of having the basics of reading and writing. The time out of education means when going back to mainstream school, they struggle because they are so far behind and so will display even more behavioural difficulties, resulting in them being expelled from mainstream school, so going alternative schools where depending on how its run's means it will be very much hit or miss for them. Playing a factor in them not wanting to go in as they see it as a waste of time or if going in they are around more trauma affected young people.

Bad behaviours develop, social workers are usually called in, and maybe this is the start of the school-to-prison pipeline. According to statistics, I may have a strong case. Though this is my opinion based on experiences.

So what can we do? The older I get the more I really understand the importance of education. Forget the settings of school for a moment. Education is important I believe because it opens up the minds of a young person to the possibilities of what they can be in the future. A student educated in biology could see a career as a doctor, a student educated in maths can see a glimpse of the discipline required to be a software developer, a student educated in debates and philosophy can see a career as a politician (well the righteous ones anyway 😒)

No education, no learning, then what can the child aspire to be? The streets don't require formal education, it allows you to learn on the spot, though the consequences of getting consistently bad grades can be severe...

For students to be able to see a future possibility, they need a clearer vision, especially considering all of the changes teens go through at this time. The addition of trauma is like thick mist on a dark night, how can they ever see. At these times, it's crucial we're able to help these young people lift the shroud of mist. I've found that music is a great way to communicate with the trauma-impacted, as it's a universal language if you listen. They may not want to open up to you about their problems, but they may express it in lyrics. A four page letter always sounds better when sung. Really taking time to listen to these words expressed through song and giving feedback based on what you've heard, means as time goes on they'll be a little bit more inclined to show a bit more of their world, and a world beyond the mist becomes clearer for them.

Sounds philosophical I bet, but you'd be surprised by the number of young people who've been referred to us and who have experienced the devastation of losing a parent, having the trauma of loss bottled up inside, that at times erupts as rage or extreme withdrawal. The first time they'd ever expressed how they'd felt was at our project and through song. Engagement back into school came via this. Music is a universal language if you care to listen.

Without a doubt, there will still be uneasy and tense times with these young people as the trauma they have faced never leaves them. However, over time they will be able to make the necessary adjustments within themselves that allow them to function in society. However, if we do not try and just continue on in expelling and suspending them. Then the alternative is that we carry on feeding this system that as time goes on seems ever better at growing a child into serving the population of the incarcerated...

We're offering a new therapeutic music intervention starting in Redbridge. The purpose of this project is to re-engage young people in learning who are struggling for a variety of reasons, including trauma, behavioural difficulties and other life challenges while enabling them to achieve a BTEC qualification and offering support to school staff.

For more information about this service please contact us via email @

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