By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
Taking aim at problems that lead children down the path of juvenile delinquency, the Communities That Care partnership of schools, students and local civic leaders shared the top risks and some solutions at a town hall meeting Friday morning.
Mark Benedetto, the county’s chief juvenile probation officer, told a room packed with law enforcement officials, politicians, social service agency leaders and school directors that the survey – filled out biannually by students in sixth, eighth, 10th, and 12th grades – cites risk factors for drugs, weapons, violence, family problems, teen pregnancy and the newest category: anxiety and depression.
Benedetto said 35 percent of the students reported feeling depressed in the last year. “And that is significant,” he said.
The three biggest risk factors in the Sharon City School District are marijuana use, gang involvement and access to weapons, according to school Superintendent John Sarandrea, who was one of several speakers at the meeting.
“It’s a loud and clear problem that our students’ marijuana use is double the state average. They are saying they don’t see anything wrong with marijuana use. They have no understanding that it’s a gateway drug. You don’t wake up one morning and start putting needles in your arms. It starts with marijuana,” he said.
To combat that, he said, his district has instituted on-the-spot drug testing for any student suspected of being under the influence, as well as automatic testing of all school athletes.
He also said access to weapons such as guns or knives is a big problem. “I give them a little test. I ask the students who could put their hands on a weapon in an hour. And all of them said they could. All of them.
“When you have a five-year-old tell you they found a gun on the way to school, I believe them. There is a problem with weapons in the community. I don’t need to tell you we lost a student earlier this year to this problem,” he said.
He also said gang activity has decreased in recent years, largely due to efforts of law enforcement and school officials, but it is definitely an influence. Collected data showed that 30 percent of children in the Sharon and Farrell areas reported being asked to join a gang.
“Kids are looking to latch onto something. If we don’t have something positive for them to attach to, the gang thing will creep up again,” he said.
Sarandrea said the results of the Pennsylvania Youth Survey Report are a “school bible when it comes to implementing change. But it only works if you put a plan in place,” he said.
In response to information collected in the 2012 survey, the goal of all those gathered in the room was “upstream prevention” to stop children from heading down a path of delinquency. “But if you know the facts, then maybe we can convince the legislators where they ought to be putting the money,” he said.
“It’s taken us six years to get where we are, but the Strengthening Families 10-14 program has made a real difference in getting families to a place where they can identify the source of the problem and find a solution,” he said.
The program, funded by the state, is the result of asking Mercer County youth what issues they are facing and “what they see is really going on around them, not what we think is going on,” he said.
Laura Leskovac, the Communities that Care coordinator, said the Strengthening Families program helped 98 people in the first year, with an estimated cost savings in county services of about $190,000.
Benedetto said the county has been involved with the national CTC program since 1994 and while initially it may have been about developing “feel good” programs for area youth, those days are gone. “The only things that get funded now are things with measurable outcomes, so we take this aggregate data and turn it into information that we can track and measure,” he said.
He also encouraged anyone with an interest in participating on the 27-member board to contact Leskovac. “We’ll take all the help we can get in keeping our kids off the path of a life of crime,” he said.