May 31, 2006

Disenfranchised Youth On Edge Crying Out For Help

The headlines are horrifying. In East Hampton, hordes of kids defying police officers at a recent beach party gone wild vied for front-page story space with a chainsaw-menacing teen threatening Latinos, and followed twisted incidents of deer being dragged and tortured on area roads.

In Southold, a trashed high school this year symbolized the simmering discontent of a disgruntled student lashing out in a seething rage.

And in Greenport, a rash of vandalism, graffiti, and theft mobilized the local Guardian Angels to work hand-in-hand with police toward solving crimes of destruction and the subsequent arrest of minors recently for burglary.

The spike in adolescent violence has educators, local authorities, parents, and youth leaders alike seeking answers and struggling for solutions.

Nancy Lynott, Director of the Southampton Town Youth Bureau, said a number of factors contribute to the surge in adolescent angst and aggression, including the warm weather, as kids start hanging out on the streets and beaches.

Also, kids today are living highly stressful lives. "The global situation is scary," said Lynott. "What goes on around the world does have more of a direct impact on our lives than it used to."

And right at home the pressure's on for kids to succeed. "They're told to have good grades, be involved in activities, and be leaders in those activities," said Lynott, adding that young people are also expected to juggle competitive sports, clubs, jobs, and community service. In addition, she said, the college admissions process has gotten even more competitive: "We don't do a very good job of teaching kids to deal with stress. As adults, we don't do a very good job; it's not a priority in our society."

Added to the pressure cooker is a lack of supervision.

Theresa Drozd, a K-12 violence prevention coordinator in the Riverhead schools, said limited parental involvement is a negative. "Kids are disconnected from their parents and not always by choice." Today, many parents are both forced to work nights and weekends to make ends meet.

Susan Toman, of the Guidance Center in Southold, agrees that there is a dearth of healthy role models. "You can't just put a skate park up and not have mentoring available to them. Otherwise they'll just smoke dope at the skate park."

According to East Hampton Town Police Chief Todd Sarris, the bottom line is that "the police department and schools are not the panacea for all these problems. The majority of this falls in the laps of the parents."

Parents need to get involved, said Sarris: "You have to know where your kids are and what your kids are doing. As difficult as that may be at times, parents need to make a concerted effort."

Not knowing, he added, can lead to incidents such as the recent melee at Sammy's Beach in East Hampton where over 60 kids took on a mob-like mentality against law enforcement.

Southold Town Police Captain Martin Flatley said while times have changed, parents still need to take responsibility for disciplining their kids. In his opinion, "it seems like parents are overly involved in kids' lives but they fall short of discipline or setting borders."

Drozd also believes that in addition to basic classes such as reading, writing and math, there should be an emphasis on SEL, or social and emotional learning.

Need for acceptance is another issue, said Drozd, who asked a student why kids today disrespect one another's property, are violent and lack empathy. "The student told me they believe that the 'tougher' they are, the more they will be accepted by their peers."

Finally, today's young people are disenfranchised because, "There is a need for instant gratification in everything they do. They need the rush. Kids today live for the moment and don't process the consequences of their actions," said Drozd.

In Southold, Toman is instrumental in implementing Communities That Care, a nationwide prevention program based on the understanding of risk and protective factors which aims to tackle and reduce youth violence and crime, substance and alcohol abuse, school delinquency and dropout, and teen promiscuity and pregnancy.

Kids are disenfranchised, she said, because "we are allowing it in our communities. Part of what CTC is doing is realizing that the problem is at an epidemic level, not just in our community, but across the country."

A survey sent out to area schools will help to determine "where the red flags and blue ribbons are, what's working and what isn't," said Toman who added, "We might have a tremendous number of after-school programs, but maybe our children aren't interested in doing that once they hit 16. That's the age they become most vulnerable to a negative element."

It's also the age when kids, armed with rules and morals, head to school, where they "begin to do the naturally adolescent program, which is to detach from home and try to gain independence," she said.

The question remains: Why are they adapting negatively? "There are so many risk factors in place, and not enough protective factors."

Two huge problems encountered today? Teen pregnancy and binge drinking.

The survey will measure risk factors that are leading kids to violent behaviors. When the survey is complete, an assessment study will be conducted and programs that are proven to address those risk factors will be instituted.

"A community is very similar to a family," said Toman. "When there is a family problem, there is always one child who will act out. These disenfranchised children are our community scapegoat. This is our child saying: 'Please, help our family.'"

Kim Laube, who runs the Shelter Island-based Human Understanding and Growth Seminars, said kids are suffering from a "huge disconnect." Even armed with the latest in technology, including computers and cell phones, "they feel so alone and isolated. What they really need is personal, human contact."

Law enforcement officials agree that recent incidents have been disturbing and vow to do whatever they can to step up patrols and resolve issues. But today's technology doesn't help, said Sarris, with IMs and emails contributing to gossip and heated rumors.

Meanwhile, municipalities are striving toward solutions. While Greenport Mayor David Kapell said the role of local government is limited compared to that of parents or educators, the village has worked to put together recreation programs and staff, through which "we have been able to establish lines of communication that allows us to see to it that disenfranchised kids are included and benefit."

Lynott said a report based on a 2005 survey of Southampton students is soon to be revealed, and assured the town has been working with the youth bureau to make mental health services more accessible to kids, as well as to increase the number of practitioners with the Family Service League.

In addition, Southampton Town recently approved the hiring of a full-time case management worker who will be working with troubled kids and families through direct intervention.

"Recent headlines are not necessarily an indicator that the incidents are increasing, but we have been seeing an increase in the severity of the problems that kids are experiencing," she said.

Toman said she has been working with Linda Ortiz of the Greenport recreation center to engage students in healthy activities. "This is really a multi-faced problem that needs a multi-faceted answer," she said.

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