April 5th- Tuesday evening, parents gathered at Johnson Williams Middle School to listen to presentations from a group of experts for the “Your Teen/Child and the Law” seminar. The well attended event addressed many areas in which laws impact the lives of youth, but also focused on techniques for parents to remain connected with their children, particularly teens, in order to guide them through the challenges they face. CCHS Principal, Dr. John Werner emceed the event and broke the ice by demonstrating how young people have been portrayed throughout the ages. Teens have challenged society since the before the time of Plato and continue to challenge us in the very same ways even today.
The program began with Leslie Stewart from CLEAN in Winchester. Stewart spoke of the importance of talking with kids and pointed out that studies show kids desperately want their parents’ attention in spite of the barriers that exist. “Conversations with kids involve a process and trying to have a conversation with a teen, especially one about an important topic, is probably not going to happen on the first try. Showing your child that you are going to try again, again, and again and letting them know that, ‘We’re going to talk about this,’ will help make the conversation happen.”
When it comes to important conversations about subjects like drugs and alcohol, Ms. Stewart advised parents to have a plan. “Don’t go into an important conversation without knowing what you want to say, making the conversation happen is a process and you have to be prepared when you actually get to have that conversation.” She also illustrated several situations that lend themselves to conversations, the most available one being in your own car. “It’s a great environment because they can’t go anywhere and you don’t have to maintain eye contact.”
Open communication and the ability to stay involved with children set the tone for the more technical aspects of the remaining speakers in the seminar.
Law enforcement filled the majority of the presentation with Town of Berryville Police Chief, Neal White providing important information that pertains to children in the town. From curfew information to detailed overviews of driving laws, Chief White presented the crowd with a comprehensive picture of the rules and regulations that impact the youth of our community. Of particular interest in Chief White’s presentation were the restrictions young drivers face. In particular, the curfew and passenger restrictions that apply to young drivers. The full list of restrictions is available from DMV here: http://www.dmv.state.va.us/webdoc/citizen/drivers/restrictions.asp
One standout section of the regulations applied to cell phones. Virginia’s cellular telephone law restricts a driver under age 18 who holds a learner’s permit or driver’s license from using any cellular telephone or any other wireless telecommunications device, regardless of whether such device is or is not hand-held. Drivers under the age 18 can only use a cell phone or any other telecommunications device for a driver emergency or when when the vehicle is lawfully parked or stopped.
Sheriff Tony Roper was unable to attend but communicated a strong drug awareness message through a letter read aloud by School Resource Officer, Deputy Gary Lichliter. The Sheriff noted, “As chairman of the Northwest Regional Drug and Gang Task Force, I am sorry to have to report that with a little effort your child can find almost any dangerous drug that you can imagine. Cocaine, marijuana, and other illegal drugs can be found. Even heroin, once considered a big city drug, is available.” Sheriff Roper’s letter also addressed a recent sting operation in the county. “In a recent undercover operation conducted in the county, half of the businesses involved sold alcohol to underage buyers. The reality is law enforcement can only do so much, as parents you are the people who will have the most influence on your children.”
Rounding out the presentations by law enforcement was Special agent John Lenz of the Virginia State Police NOVA-DC Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Lenz addressed the issue of cyber-bullying and acknowledged that many who are now parents did not have this issue in their lives when they were children. However, the ubiquity of online social media has made it a key issue in the lives of today’s youth. From Facebook to Xbox Live, Lenz illustrated the ways small dust-ups can become troubling incidents for kids. He advised parents to stay connected to their children online as well as in the offline world. Most importantly to look for signs of behavioral changes that may indicate a child is being bullied.
“If your child has a pattern of using Facebook, a cell phone, or Xbox Live and one day they suddenly stop and stay away from Facebook or their cell phone, then they are avoiding something and they are probably being bullied.”
Strategies for dealing with online bullying included monitoring your child’s online activity. If that doesn’t work consider blocking certain websites or emails. Law enforcement is a last resort for online bulllying, said Lenz, “If I get involved, I have to open a case and that case is going to follow a child through the rest of his life.” Educating children is the preferred strategy for bullying. Teaching kids not to be bullies and that there are consequences for being a bully. “Bottom line is that if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face you shouldn’t say it online.”
Enforcement segued into consequences as Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney, Suzanne “Suni” Perka took the podium. Ms. Perka painted a picture of the legal system with a consistent thread, drugs and alcohol. “I will tell you that 99 percent of the cases that I have prosecuted involved drugs and alcohol, so it is a problem.” Ms. Perka spoke of kids falling into a spectrum of risk, “The majority will never get into any serious trouble, then there is a small group that are at risk of getting involved in some kind of trouble, and then there is a smaller group of kids that will be in and out of trouble all the time. The task is to show the kids in the middle that there are consistent consequences for bad decisions.”
Closing out the presentation was a stark reminder of the tragic turn these consequences may take. Cathy Shirley took the podium with a portrait of her son, Aaron Shirley, on an easel beside her. The portrait was from Aaron’s kindergarten graduation. “This is the only graduation picture of Aaron we will ever have.” Aaron Shirley was killed in an accident that involved underage drinking last year. That event set the entire community on notice that there is a problem. Mrs. Shirley revealed publicly, for the first time, details leading up to the accident that might have been indications of a problem had they known to look. Her hope was that by sharing the details of this terrible tragedy, other parents may be able to spot subtle changes in their child’s behavior before it is too late. Mrs. Shirley noted changes in friends that her son spent time with, the music he listened to, and a change in his overall outlook on life that seemed pessimistic, beyond what could be considered normal for a teen. She closed by imploring the community to take action and work together to prevent this from happening again.
Dr. Werner also reminded parents that plans are underway for a Clarke County High School After Prom Celebration for Juniors and Seniors on Prom Night, May 21st. Dr. Werner noted Prom night is “historically the most dangerous night for high school students.” Volunteers interested in helping to create a fun and safe evening for students may contact Clarke County High School for details.