(NNPA)—Jeremiah Byrd said when he dropped out of high school at 17 he had no idea how it would impact his life because the consequences weren’t immediate. But after a few months of looking for work and constantly getting turned down, he quickly realized he had locked himself out of economic opportunities.

Byrd is just one of the many high school dropouts who have become a growing underclass with few options for upward mobility. And with no marketable job skills and limited education, law enforcement officials and community leaders say dropping out increases the already high probability of being incarcerated.

Now, at age 19, Byrd is recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. He’s also back on course, getting his GED in an effort to pull together a future for himself. Byrd said problems at home distracted him in class so he just gave up and even if a person wants to apply for a job at a McDonald’s restaurant the applicant has to either be in school or have a high school diploma.

“The ramifications of what I did weren’t immediate,” he said. “I would go out looking for work and couldn’t find anything. I remember one place where I filled out an application and there were several other people after the same job. They had high school diplomas or college degrees. I knew then that I had messed up. I applied at McDonald’s and told them I was still in school. They asked to see my transcripts, which I couldn’t provide.” Like many high school dropouts, Byrd saw no other alternative but to turn to illegal activities to make money.

“I don’t want to say what I was doing but you can imagine,” he said. “At one point I did get arrested but it wasn’t because of what I was doing. I just happened to be hanging out with the wrong people at the wrong place at the wrong time. Fortunately the charges against me were dropped. There was a time when if you dropped out of school, you still had options. It’s not like that anymore. It’s completely different now. A person who drops out of school locks themselves out of a lot of opportunities. When you drop out the only jobs you’re going to get are under the table, that’s no way to live.”

According to a new report released by the African-American and Latino Male Drop­out Task Force, half of Black males currently in school will quit and research shows that high school dropouts are eight times more likely to be incarcerated and three times more likely to be arrested.

Just to illustrate the seriousness of the dropout crisis, Rasheed Scrugs, the man accused of murdering police officer John Pawlowski, was a high school dropout, as are Solomon Montgomery, Daniel Giddings, Eric Floyd and Lavon Warner. All of them allegedly murdered Philadelphia police officers.

Is there a definitive connection between dropping out of school and turning to crime? Experts say without a doubt.

“It’s real and we have to be proactive about this. It’s something the community cannot ignore,” said Milton Alexander, vice president of Operations for Camelot. Camelot runs educational and therapeutic programs for a cross-section of exceptional children, including children with autism to young people with complex mental health and behavioral problems and even older teens at risk of dropping out of school.

“One of the things we see when young people who have dropped out start coming back is that they’re looking for structure,” Alexander said. “If a child is constantly truant, has a poor attendance record and is significantly behind academically, those signs indicate they’re at risk of dropping out.”

Chad Dion Lassiter, MSW, president of Black Men at Penn School of Social Work, Inc. said there is little doubt in his mind that far too many kids who drop out will end up in prison. “It’s very significant,” he said. “One of the things that alarms me is when I go to the prisons and talk with inmates, I’ll ask them, how many finished high school. Very few hands go up.”

More often than not, unless you have some education or a marketable trade you will end up in prison, where you will have a full time job, just no benefits. We need a sustainable effort to turn this decline around, which means we have to engage the communities, the families and the faith-based sector. We have to let our young people know we want them to go to Penn State, not the state pen.”

(Larry Miller writes for the Philadelphia Tribune.)

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