Youth initiative strengthens resolve

Expert on teen violence offers guidance to LPS

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The topic of the Jan. 10 meeting of the Greater Littleton Youth Initiative was painfully timely given the recent tragedy at Arapahoe High School, but Dr. Jeff Jenson had already been scheduled to present his work on preventing youth violence.

“When it’s your neighborhood, your back yard, all the statistics don’t really matter,” he said. “Making sense of the reasons has been the hardest thing.”

GLYI comprises current and past Littleton Public Schools staff and board members, mental-health workers, local government officials, community organizations that work with youth, and everyday citizens. They initially came together in 1999 after the tragedy at Columbine, a Jefferson County school, in an attempt to prevent another such episode in the greater Littleton community.

But none of them could have predicted that 15 years later, they would be discussing another school shooting, this one just blocks away from their meeting room in the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce office in Centennial’s Streets at SouthGlenn.

“We want healthy kids, and we want to stop all the bad things as fast as we can,” said John Brackney, president of the chamber and a founding member of GLYI. “If you were all of us, what would you tell us to do?”

Jenson, a professor at the University of Denver’s graduate school of social work, replied that helping young families get off the ground is a good first step.

“But I guess if I had my druthers, I’d like to see a big paradigm shift that would make us move collectively to a prevention orientation,” he said.

GLYI has taken strides toward that end already, implementing scientifically sound programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership, which pairs first-time moms with support, and the Incredible Years, which instills emotional, social and academic skills in preschool kids.

Jenson said the overarching skill that kids need is how to be resilient, to recover when bad things happen and learn positive lessons from them. To achieve that, he said, requires a good foundation to build on, things like having healthy social bonds, problem-solving skills, a positive attitude, a happy and stable home, and low stress levels.

“We’re pressure-cooking these kids,” said Angela Engel, the City of Centennial’s youth and senior commissions coordinator.

What doesn’t work, said Jenson, are the “scared straight” kinds of programs of the past. “These efforts had the opposite effect, almost,” he said.

Today’s programs, such as the ones used by GLYI, approach the issue of teen violence the way public-health departments approach disease — at the source.

“Problem behaviors are best prevented by reducing the risk factors associated with their onset,” said Jenson.

Factors like substance abuse in the family, lack of parental bonding, low commitment to education, poverty, peer rejection and lack of involvement in the community can all be risk factors, he said.

“Despite advances in prevention, solutions to preventing isolated incidences of school shootings remain elusive,” he added.

That comment reflected the frustration and sadness evident in the room. But there was also the sense that it’s more important than ever for GLYI to make progress going forward. It’s currently undergoing a change in structure as it works to wean itself off of the City of Littleton, which has been funding it to the tune of $100,000 a year.

“This is not an effort to say it’s anybody’s fault,” said Brackney. “It’s all of our efforts to have a healthy community. And it has to be a community, or it will never work.”

“We cannot stop all bad things from happening, but we can show everybody how we rally and come together,” agreed Sue Chandler, GLYI president.

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