By Barbara Taormina
The good news is that students feel safe in Malden schools, but the unexpected update is that they were a little surprised that someone took time to ask. Those were the reactions of several teens who turned out for a panel discussion on gun violence, school safety and civic engagement last week at the Malden Teen Enrichment Center (MTEC). Organized by the YWCA’s peer Teen Advocates Sharing Knowledge (TASK) program and cohosted by MTEC, the discussion covered a range of related topics, such as gun control, violence-prevention and the power of teens stepping up and working for change.
“It’s interesting that the community actually cared enough about this to set this up and try to get teens involved,” said Josh, a Malden High sophomore. Anthony, a MHS junior, said the panel touched on a lot of issues going around school, and he was glad to see an open discussion that involved students.
YWCA Teen Services Coordinator Chris Murphy said the Peer TASK program received a mini-grant from the United Way to keep a community conversation on school violence, safety and civic engagement moving forward.
The TASK program focuses on helping young women develop leadership skills to address community problems and to promote cooperation and change. Recent peer TASK team projects include public awareness campaigns against bullying, underage drinking, tobacco, drugs and driving while under the influence. Peer TASK girls also launched MTEC’s Culture Club to help Malden teens understand the value of diversity through sharing different cultural traditions and practices. The group has also promoted community health and wellness through projects that highlight the need for improvement to Malden’s parks and neighborhoods.
Murphy said after months of research on gun violence, school safety, and strategies to confront those problems, the peer TASK team decided to build their community conversation around a panel discussion. “I was very pleased with what they did,” said Murphy. “My biggest surprise was how aware they were about the opportunities to partner with other groups and organizations.”
The TASK team enlisted a panel that included Malden Police Officer Jack Lanni, teen suicide–prevention organization The Nan Project’s Peer Coordinator, Mike Amendolare, and Kristine Glynn, a lobbyist who also teaches at Suffolk University. They also tapped classmate Lana Giha to sit on the panel and provide an insider’s insight into the mood at Malden High.
Giha said that students become aware of the issues of gun violence and school safety in the wake of tragedies like the shooting at Florida’s Parkland High School. “There are certain groups of kids who are mobilized to talk about it,” she said.
Like many others, Giha sees the social atmosphere and the pressure to fit in as a key part of the problem. “When you feel left out, you can go down that winding path,” she said, adding that the stigma of mental health problems keeps students from reaching out for help.
There are adjustment counselors at Malden High who can help students who feel alienated and alone. “It’s confidential, so it’s safe,” said Giha. “The problem is that there are four adjustment counselors at the high school and they are all pretty flooded.”
Several members of the panel urged students to reach out and say something when they see fellow students struggling with depression and other mental health issues. “Pay attention to what your friends are saying,” Amendolare told the audience at the teen center.
TASK members agreed that listening and reaching out to their peers who need help is one of the most effective things they can so to keep schools safe. “It’s hard times for kids growing up today,” said Kayla Cadet.
Yadira Duarte agreed and said teens are coping with family problems, health issues, depression, death and personal conflicts that adults don’t seem to fully understand.
“If we know something, we can try to help,” said Cadet. “Growing up in a diverse community like Malden teaches you to make connections and to become open.” And many teens are more likely to respond to someone their own age who understand the world from their vantage point.
Murphy felt the peer TASK discussion helped students understand that school safety and violence prevention is the entire community’s responsibility, and everyone should be involved. She and MTEC Director Cathy MacMullin hope to organize more events that will draw parents, teachers and community leaders into the conversation.
“The best thing we can do is to be aware,” said Murphy. “It’s up to all of us to keep one another safe.”