Ten years after being drafted by the Chicago Bears as a 6-foot-3-inch tall, 308-pound standout tackle from Tulane University, Bernard H. Robertson III no longer plays professional football. He is still in the “trenches” – quietly battling for disadvantaged children in New Orleans.
Robertson, 32, an investment advisor and local union president of the NFL Players Association, is treasurer of the Tremé Charter School Association, the all-volunteer board governing the McDonogh No. 42 Elementary Charter School (1651 North Tonti St.) in the tough Tremé neighborhood.
The historical and cultural contributions of the Tremé – arguably an evolutionary place of jazz and the undisputed “crown jewel” of free black communities during slavery – are captured in books, film, music and HBO’s “Treme.”
The Tremé around McDonogh No. 42 is starkly depicted in police reports.
There were more than 300 crimes reported to police – including armed robberies and drug offenses – within a one-mile radius of the Tremé school during the first six weeks of the 2011-’12 year.
In a city with a murder rate 10 times higher than the national average in 2010, reaching the safety of a school may seem like an academic achievement to some children in the neighborhood:
• In 2009, Jamaria Ross, 7, a kindergartner at McDonough 42, was murdered inside her home, along with her 4-year-old brother, their mother and an aunt. A deranged relative pleaded guilty to the massacre; he’s serving 80 years in prison.
• In 2010, a brother of another child at McDonogh No. 42 was killed across the street from the school, during the summer recess.
• After school opened for the 2010-’11 year, a dead body was found in vacant lot, a block away from the school, within view of students walking to class,” a school official said.
“This is not a ‘them’ problem; this is an ‘us’ problem,” says Robertson. “Your educational system can’t operate in a ‘bubble’ outside of the crime.”
Nearly all of the school’s students (pre-kindergarten through eighth grade) come from poor families, and include children of the drug-addicted, the incarcerated and the homeless. There are children suffering from post-traumatic stress, emotional neglect and learning disabilities.
“The life they live is the poorest of the poor,” says Roslyn J. Smith, president of the Tremé charter board, who retired as a principal from the old public school district in 2005. Smith says she once taught the mother of the McDonogh No. 42 kindergarten child slain in 2009, but didn’t realize it until she saw a photograph at funeral services for the murdered family. “There is a picture of me giving this child her graduation certificate,” Smith says. “I knew her family and I didn’t realize it until I was standing over the four coffins. That’s not something you think about when you think about running a school.”
Today, mental health care is desperately needed at the Tremé school, six years after Hurricane Katrina, she says. “We need psychiatrists! We need social workers. The whole community needs social workers!” With a heavy sigh she adds, “We have to prepare the children for LEAP tests.”
On an autumn morning Bernard Robertson III and his wife, Rheneisha, director of a local nonprofit health clinic for women, were among the last to leave a first-ever “Breakfast with Champions,” for supporters of McDonogh No. 42, inside the school auditorium. Former NFL cornerback Mike McKenzie (Robertson’s fellow board member in the local players union) made an appearance.
At a reporter’s request, Robertson reviewed child poverty statistics for more than 20 NFL cities – extrapolated from the 2011 “Kids Count” report released by the local advocacy organization, Agenda for Children. So did his wife.
The Robertsons, both native New Orleanians who met as students at Tulane University, have two children, ages 7 and 6. They agree that ranking crimes and social ills by NFL cities could offer a constructive approach to local crime woes. “The NFL looks at the same figures,” Bernard Robertson says. “They (NFL owners) look at where teams might move. They are constantly worrying about ticket sales.”
Bernard Robertson, who ended his three-year professional career with the Buffalo Bills, says cities seeking dramatic reductions in homicide rates should follow the example of successful NFL teams such as the Saints. “Do the same things the teams do: Hire better personnel, pay them what they’re worth and create an atmosphere for them to succeed,” he says.
Rheneisha Robertson says ranking crimes and social ills by NFL cities might give “advocates a chance to push for corporate responsibility and engagement.” Her husband disagrees: “A corporation will wait for communities to heal themselves.” The couple says NFL teams and players can have a limited impact on crime rates, until “more systemic problems” are addressed, such as disparities in health care and education. “A player can have a [charitable] foundation,” he says. “But he’s concentrating on football 16 to 18 hours a day – he can’t be the Superman [the kids] are looking for.”
The NFL sponsors a number of youth recreation efforts that may keep kids out of trouble. The league’s players union initiatives include programs to prevent gun violence and child sexual abuse and abductions, as well as a “training camp” to help break cycles of domestic violence. Saints quarterback Drew Brees has personally endorsed player union efforts with the U.S. Department of Justice to end violence against women and teen dating abuse. The social activism of NFL players is palpable and welcome.
Meanwhile, nothing seems to stymie New Orleans’ persistent violence. Authorities and experts remain vexed and frustrated as homicides plunge everywhere else in the nation. By September’s end, the national average was 4.5 homicides per 100,000 people. “We are at 52 [murders] per 100,000,” Tulane criminologist Peter Scharf says. “We’re almost 12 times the national average.” At the current pace, New Orleans will finish 2011 with approximately 190 murders, up from 174 last year, he says.
“The city doesn’t have a plan that really fits what’s going on here,” Scharf says. “We seem unable to stay focused on any one strategy that has a potential of reversing the murder realities of the city.”
The mayor appears appropriately fixated on ending the city’s “murder epidemic.” The public seems less engaged – or unready – to follow Landrieu’s lead. “We have to resolve to turn the tide,” the mayor says.
Time is short. If we’re going to show the world we’re a truly safe city we have to show real progress before Feb. 3, 2013, Super Bowl Sunday.
Bernard Robertson III is already in the “trenches.” He ponders a recent rash of home invasions by teenaged armed robbers. He recommends a prevention strategy: early intervention. Family members heading out for recreational activities should try to “bring one more kid along.” The way the NFL veteran explains it, people who include a child today reduce the odds of encountering a dangerous, alienated youth tomorrow. “The lives they save may be their own.”