Celebrating at Lady’s Island Middle School are, back row, from left, Lakinsha Swinton, director of student services; Kashta Campbell, assistant principal; Lori Davis, assistant principal; and Dr. N’kia Campbell, district officer of academic initiatives. They gathered to honor sixth grader JaVeion Holmes-Simmons, center, a member of Young Men of Distinction, who won an award at school. COURTESY BCSD

Beaufort County School District recently launched a mentorship program for middle and high school boys. The Young Men of Distinction program is geared toward boys in grades six through 12 with a history of behavioral problems.

Director of Academic Initiatives N’kia Campbell said the school district identified nearly 100 boys and invited them to the group, which meets for an hour every two weeks on Zoom.

“All the research tells us that young men – all students but specifically our young men – need positive role models in front of them,” Campbell said.

She decided it was the perfect time to kick off the program. The pandemic is keeping students away from their friends, and the program provides a platform for them to come together virtually in a time of crisis.

“We’re using this opportunity to foster connections with the students, to pour into them,” Campbell said. “To let them know that they’re not alone, to let them know that even though there may be some social-emotional trauma, we’re here to support them.”

Campbell said the program will provide students with the tools they need to be problem solvers and critical thinkers. It will also teach them the importance of giving back to their communities.

At each meeting, students will hear from positive male role models in the community. School district superintendent Frank Rodriguez, along with deputy superintendent and chief of schools Duke Bradley III, spoke at the first meeting. They shared their personal stories, and spoke about goal setting, having high expectations and learning from their mistakes.

Other speakers have discussed political awareness, military service, the need for more minority men in the field of STEM and the late Rep. John Lewis’s idea of getting into “good trouble.”

The students were recently asked to come up with individual service projects to do in their communities. In the spring, they will also do a project together as a group.

Campbell said the district is designing the program one semester at a time. Other topics she would like to cover with the students include public speaking, college, possible scholarships and career choices.

Campbell would love to empower other school districts to start their own groups, and she hopes to start a “young ladies” group in the spring.

Lady’s Island Middle School behavior management specialist Shawn Coleman works directly with students who have been referred to him for behavioral issues. He said in a normal setting at the middle school, classroom disruptions make up the majority of referrals, but in the age of virtual learning, most referrals are for absences.

Other issues that can lead to referrals include excessive tardies and failing two or more courses.

“I applaud our district leaders for taking the time to acknowledge that there needs to be some sort of initiative to address our male students,” Coleman said. “Hopefully these young men can see that they have an exceptional group of positive male role models within the community that they can reach out to for social and emotional support, and to get inspiration from.”

To learn more or volunteer with Young Men of Distinction, call Campbell at 843-322-5925.

Amy Coyne Bredeson of Bluffton is a freelance writer, a mother of two and a volunteer with the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance.