SALEM, MASS. — He’s a political science major with a full scholarship to Northeastern University and aspirations in government service. He worked under Martha Coakley, the Massachusetts attorney general, during the Boston Marathon Bombings, and for the National Parks Service during summers. As the 2011 Essex County representative for the Massachusetts Governor’s Statewide Youth Council, elected by his peers to be its president, he was instrumental in launching a Black Out Bullying awareness campaign with rallies at 70+ schools.
But a few years before that, during his sophomore year of high school, Manny Cruz was a bully facing potential assault charges and a 10-day suspension.
The characters in his story, while specific to Salem, Mass., can likely be found in every city. But the resources and services that nurtured this bully to find an unexpected path—the law enforcement approach at a critical moment, after school programs and educational experience opportunities—need the support of civic leaders to be empowered.
Manny the Bully
Cruz started his recent talk early in his life. He, his two brothers and his mother were living in a house with his abusive step-father. He couldn’t tell his teachers why he didn’t do his homework.
By grade 6, Cruz was suicidal. He wrote a note during an in-house suspension that another student found in the trash and shared with the school principal, who was able to intervene.
“I was really set on doing this, but really what it was, was a cry for help,” said Cruz during his recent public talk, One Good Suit.
At the hospital, he felt safe, but he knew home wasn’t actually safe. Children subjected to domestic violence “know the consequences of telling someone what is going on,” Cruz said. He couldn’t speak out for fear that his family would be broken up, or things would just get worse.
“The trauma of living in a household filled with violence stayed with me,” Anger grew, and he planned to drop out of school by age 16.
On that pivotal day sophomore year, Cruz disrupted his class before a quiz, and his teacher asked him to leave and come back after school. When he returned, he said that teacher stood up to him and said exactly what he needed to hear. The teacher told Cruz that he was a bully that needed to change his actions, and that she would not allow him to make up the test.
Cruz got angry and overturned two chemistry tables in front of her and stormed out.
The Officer & A Gentleman’s Suit
The dean called him at home, and the result would be suspension and a visit from then school liaison officer Michael Fecteau.
When the police officer came to Cruz’s house, “he really wanted to know my side of the story. Officer Fecteau and I had a very long talk about myself and my image, and he was willing to give me a second chance because the school was ready to press assault charges against me for what I had done,” said Cruz.
He worked with Officer Fecteau to write an apology letter and was able to return to school because the police officer became his advocate to the Salem school system.
But, when you do something like that, the first thing you need to think about that is your image and how you are going to change. At that time, I had no plan,” said Cruz.
Cruz’s mother responded with, “Manny, I’m going to get you a suit and you’re going to do great things in it.” He thought it was for his court date, but it would accompany him on his second-chance journey. Cruz wore it for his first job, when he was sworn into the state youth council and more.
Around that time, another mentor, Andre Daley, came into his life through an after school program. Daley, the teen director of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Salem, had gone to college. His experiences made an impression, Cruz said.
Cruz, once a bully, now had the tools to create a plan for himself.
LEAP & Community College
Cruz actually started going to LEAP for Education, a program that empowers low-income and first-generation-to-college students to perform at higher levels in middle school and high school, early on to use their computers. It was something his step-father would not allow at home.
Later in high school, perhaps when Cruz needed it most, the after school program gave him much more than a chance to play games.
Daley, his new mentor was always present there, Cruz said, noting that he was instrumental in changing this former bully’s life.
Daley “would talk to me about his morals and values, and how he came to understand them, and how he changed his own life. And that really inspired me to want to be better, and it really started to culminate with a leadership role on the basketball team,” even though Cruz was not the most talented player on the team, he said.
“Andre saw something in me and that it was that my peers gravitated toward me. And he told me that I had a responsibility not just to myself–but to my community–to use my voice,” said Cruz.
Daley also said Cruz needed to tell his story, be a mentor to others and speak up to adults about the issues youth are facing.
When Cruz wanted to go to college, late in high school, his GPA was low. Northeastern University was out of reach, but LEAP showed him that starting at community college was the path forward to schools like Northeastern.
Daley told him, “You start college with a 4.0 GPA,” Cruz said, noting that he found the notion that he could start his educational standing over exhilarating.
When he got on the Governor’s Council, LEAP was there again to sponsor him and actively support his participation.
P3s, Social Capital & Better Outcomes
Today with Northeastern, Cruz looks critically at at-risk youth, the achievement gap and extended learning days. He believes that after school mentors are critical in a globalized world where youth must deal with two distinct worlds—the physical and digital.
“I was super interested in trying to create spaces for mentors to come in and work with kids because for me, it seems like the difference in my story was that I had people that kept reaching out, and they didn’t stop caring about my own interests, they had invested in me, they humanized me,” he said.
At Northeastern, his co-op work experience taught him how to develop relationships with adults—a key skill in furthering his own future. Cruz believes mentors are “social capital” for at-risk youth.
Cruz said he believes that apprenticeships within public schools are the critical missing piece facing a generation that needs experience to enter the job market. The youth that he now mentors are most interested in his work experiences, he said.
Collaboration with academia can create opportunities for young people, Cruz said. Linking kids to job opportunities and internships is a place where public-private partnerships (P3s) can fill a gap.
Youth today are facing many challenges, and building connections through work experiences “will lead to different doors once they graduate from college,” he said.
We need to start thinking about our public schools and universities and transform them into something that leads to better professional outcomes for our students,” he said.