ROWLAND — In a mobile classroom parked near South Robeson High School, Chet Pennock moves back a black curtain to reveal a set of bars. Beyond them sits a toilet, sink, two cots — and a warning.
‘This is Monique’s bathroom,” reads a plaque on the wall. “She washes her face, brushes her teeth, and goes to the bathroom — all in one place. There are no curtains. There are no doors. She has no privacy. Ever.”
The jail cell, in a school bus-turned-classroom called the “Choice Bus,” is the centerpiece of a program designed to demonstrate to students the connection between dropping out of school and ending up behind bars. According to the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, which sends the bus to schools across the country, a child drops out of school every 26 minutes, and eight out of 10 prisoners didn’t earn their high school diploma.
“It gets their attention,” Pennock, lead presenter for the foundation, said after a 20-minute session on Tuesday, during which students were invited to tour the jail cell replica. “You’d be surprised on how many say they either won’t come in at all, or walk in and quickly walk back out. Most of them say ‘I’ll never be in there again.’”
Monique, a 19-year-old serving a seven-year sentence for fighting with a weapon, is one of seven prisoners featured on a four-minute video shown during the presentation. She was 14 years old when sentenced to prison.
“If I would have hung around with a better crowd, a crowd that was going to exceed and excel, I wouldn’t be in the predicament I’m in today,” Monique said in the video.
It’s a chord that struck 15-year-old Zoriea Drawhorn, who watched the video from the second row.
“It makes me realize that I do a lot of things, not meaning to, that could have an impact on my life … and who my real friends are and who I maybe shouldn’t be hanging around with,” she said.
Peer pressure, lack of support at home, and the “lure of easy money on the streets,” are all reasons that students drop out of school, according to The Mattie C. Stewart Foundation’s website.
North Carolina’s graduation rate rose above 80 percent for the first time this year school year, according to the state Department of Instruction. In Robeson County, about 17 percent of students dropped out before or during their senior year.
Pennock urged the 15 students on the Choice Bus to promise themselves that they would not only associate with people that would help them to make better choices, but also to finish their high school education and find a way to take an extra step after high school that would lead to a well-paying job.
“Everything you do follows you for the rest of your life,” Pennock said. “It’s either going to help you get where you want to go or prevent you from getting there.
“You’re the one who has to make the choice,” he said.
The visit to South Robeson was sponsored by North Carolina Communities in Schools and Walmart. According to Pennock, the bus has visited North Carolina schools for three weeks and has hosted more than 1 million students.
Dencie Lambdin, executive director of Communities In Schools in Robeson County, sat in on one of Tuesday’s sessions.
“I think it’s important because students need to understand the link between dropping out of school and spending time in prison,” Lambdin said. “And, to simulate the importance of making good decisions, good personal decisions. It’s not too early to begin thinking about that at the eighth- and ninth-grade level.”