North Coast Journal

Feb. 1995

Age of innocence Lost

by Lisa Ladd Wilson

In January of 1994, 14-year-old Amber Slaughter was shot and killed on the beach off Table Bluff. One of the three teenage boys charged in the crime said they were angry that Amber had told others she'd slept with them.

It was October when Angela Brown, also 14, walked into the middle of Highway 299 near Blue Lake. She sat down in the road, facing oncoming traffic, and was struck by a car and died. Friends said she had been depressed, and toxicology tests revealed the presence of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine.

At year's end, 12-year-old Jessica Powers was killed by a gun blast to the face. One of the three teenage boys who were in the Elk River Road home at the time of the shooting has been charged with murder.

Also in Humboldt County in 1994: Drive-by shootings, an increase in crime, especially during the summer, and several teenage suicides. What ever happened to the halcyon days of youth?

"I wouldn't want to be a kid today," said Rose Baker, a parenting instructor and foster mother who lives in Eureka, and many people probably would agree.

"Youth is wholly experimental," Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, and being young has meant testing limits and rebellions. But a world with AIDS, methamphetamine, crack cocaine, gangs and guns is a world that's grown less forgiving of youthful indiscretions. Mistakes that used to serve as learning experiences now may be fatal errors, because sex can kill, and so can a fighting word.

"It's no longer safe to just flip somebody off, because you might get a shotgun in your face," said Paul Jones, Humboldt County sheriff deputy. "It's a real scary thing."

Adults fear for youth, but they also are in fear of them. In 1992 the FBI estimated there were 2.3 million arrests of juveniles in the United States. About 130,000 of those were for violent offenses. From 1983 to 1992, the rate of juveniles being arrested for violent crimes increased 57 percent; arrests for homicide climbed 128 percent.

Since 1983, the Humboldt County Probation Department has seen a 44 percent increase in referrals to its juvenile services, with one of the biggest jumps in assault, assault with a deadly weapon and battery (up 357 percent).

Society's response has been varied, from tougher laws to tougher love. Local law enforcement agencies have prevention programs such as DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education); schools have banned the wearing of gang colors and welcomed officers on campus. Special counseling programs are offered, and some schools have instituted "conflict management teams" to defuse tensions among student groups.

In fact, the list of programs, projects and organizations - either in place or in the planning stage - is impressive in length and variety. Some try to reach children at school; other efforts are focused more on family.

Many of these projects are fairly new, but already some people are saying a different approach is needed if society really is serious about saving its kids. What many critics are urging - both nationwide and in Humboldt County - is a community effort, a united front of law enforcement, schools, parents and businesses raising a hand to say "stop."

Few people in Humboldt County are as aware of the problems facing kids today as Fran Slaughter. Amber was her oldest daughter, and the news that her firstborn was found dead in the rain, a bullet fired into the back of her head, changed Fran's life and focus.

It's been nearly a year, but two of the suspects in Amber's shooting have yet to go to trial. (The third teenager charged, Abraham Gerving, has pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Tommy Winger, 16, and Jerry Dunaway, 18.) A gag order has been placed on the proceedings.

Fran Slaughter has been busy these past 12 months: She operates her own landscape maintenance business, and is a wife and mother with two other daughters, Alison, 13, and Erika, 10. She is a familiar figure on the second floor of the courthouse, attending the multitude of court hearings that accompany contested murder charges. In what she laughably calls her "spare time," she also has started Parents Advocating Safe Schools. When Slaughter talks about PASS, it's with a mixture of passion and questioning: She isn't sure what went wrong for Amber, but she's trying to find out, and PASS is part of that search.

Based on the "safe schools" concept being adopted nationwide, PASS's goals include more parent and community involvement in schools, and "a public school environment 100 percent - free from drugs, weapons, violence and intimidation."

"(PASS) started out of pain, out of the depth of pain" one month after Amber died, Slaughter said. Her daughter had been on a rocky road for some time - hanging out with a bad crowd, skipping school - and Slaughter found herself wondering, "What could have been done by us, or the schools or probation, to change the path she was on?"

It was only after Amber's death that Slaughter said she found out about some of the programs in place at Eureka High School and other schools that might have helped Amber and her family. She thinks other parents might not know of the resources that are available, either.

"I had too much faith in the schools," Slaughter says now, but she quickly adds that "the schools are doing the best they can," especially in view of the dwindling funding for public education.

But that highlights one of the reasons for PASS, she said: to recruit adults as volunteers in the school, filling in the cracks made by the budget ax. She'd also like PASS to bring educators and parents together in learning, with schools perhaps offering classes in effective parenting techniques, and parents having input on school discipline procedures, which Slaughter thinks are often too lenient. In April of last year, Slaughter and PASS invited Suzanne Smith, principal of Kennedy Middle School in El Centro, to talk to local school and community members. A Redway native and graduate of South Fork High School (Class of '68), Smith is a proponent of more parental involvement in schools: When parents and educators unite for the good of a child, she says, everyone benefits.

"Teachers are threatened by parents yelling at them, and parents are threatened by teachers' roles in their kids' lives," Smith said. "Somebody has to be willing to open the door and alleviate the fear."

Kennedy Middle School offers adult classes in parenting skills; parents in turn have a say in some school practices. Each student also is assigned an adviser, a teacher who meets with them 20 minutes every morning for the full three years the child attends the school. (The adviser concept is in use in many middle schools around the country, including Humboldt County.)

"They do home visits with the child, they do everything they can to ensure the school has exhausted everything (so) that kid succeeds in life," Smith said.

She also instituted the "isolated learning center" at Kennedy, wherein students whose behavior in the past might have led to suspension instead are temporarily assigned to another classroom - all by themselves. "They're removed from the whole school population, but still given an education," Smith said. "We're not setting them up for failure (as a suspension or expulsion would), and we're not letting them out on the streets."

Smith's school has a population that's 96 percent Hispanic, with 74 percent speaking only limited English. That poses special problems not found in Humboldt schools, but, she says, "Kids are kids; I don't care what the cultural background is. You treat them with decency and respect. Treat them like an adult."

It's a sentiment Rose Baker applauds. Baker teaches people how to be a parent, and she's seen more than one eyebrow raised at the idea that parenting is learned. She's also seen more than enough evidence that it's not being learned very well.

"Sometimes it seems we have an entire generation of people who have no parenting skills whatsoever," she said.

Baker has lived in Eureka for 13 years, and she's been a foster parent for 11 of them. It was through the frustrations of that role that she learned about the Cline-Fay Institute in Colorado.

"Their theory is to let the child do the lion's share of the thinking, making choices for themselves (and) accepting the consequences," Baker said. She completed the institute's "love and logic" training, and she now offers six-week parenting workshops in Eureka that stress "natural consequences" for children's behavior.

"If I were to be stopped by the police and arrested for speeding or drunk driving, the natural consequence of that is I go to jail or get a ticket," Baker explained. "When I get home, do I expect to be badgered by my family - `What is wrong with you? What were you thinking?' That's not a natural consequence."

It should be the same for a child caught cutting school, she said: The school exacts its punishment of detention or suspension, and the parent does not harangue the child when they get home. Instead, the parent waits until his anger subsides - usually until the next day - and then together they work out a way for the child to "pay back" the time and energy her behavior cost the family; i.e., cleaning a room or two. And a calm discussion of the suspension centers on the child's feelings, not the parents'.

This lets the child maintain a sense of respect, realize her actions affect other people's lives, and prevents anger from escalating, Baker said. After all, she noted, anger doesn't promote communication; it hinders it. "And there is nothing stronger than a child drunk on anger," she added. As far as Peter Blauvelt is concerned, anger is the "real issue" for young people today, and it is his greatest concern.

"Why are so many of these kids angry, and what can we do about it?" asks Blauvelt, president of the National Alliance for Safe Schools. Fran Slaughter based PASS on the "safe schools" concept that Blauvelt and six others founded in 1977 in Maryland. The national group offers training and consulting to schools on issues surrounding discipline, security and crime prevention.

Blauvelt wasn't surprised to hear about the apparent gang activity in Eureka, or about Amber's death.

"We have now totally destroyed the myth that only urban areas have violence," Blauvelt said in a telephone interview from Chicago, where he was giving a workshop. "No school district is immune." His message in his workshops is this: "Every school is different. You have to have the local folks identify for each individual school what is causing fear and anxiety for the kids.

"Crime is not generally the top problem from a kid's perspective; it's interpersonal relationships - `dissing' and romance and such. He said/she said stuff.

"You have to get the student population to report what is causing fear and anxiety. Turn it back over to the kids. And you know, the most remarkable thing happens: You get very innovative ideas from the victims and even the perpetrators."

But, he added: "Once you have gangs and drive-by shootings, it's not a school issue; it's a law enforcement issue. I'm sorry, but when the gun goes off, there's not much education can do about that."

Blauvelt recommends a "stop-it-before-it-happens" approach, and Kent Bradshaw, Fortuna police chief, is trying to do just that. His city hasn't seen much gang activity yet, but he's started prevention programs just the same.

"I think it's always tough to be a kid - but there are new influences today, and we need to address those kinds of concerns," Bradshaw said. Fortuna Officer Kurt Bialous has been assigned to youth services, out of which he conducts the DARE program and Project YES, an antidrug and anti-gang workshop for fourth and sixth grades. Bradshaw also has begun a Senior Citizens on Patrol (called SCOPE) project that enlists retirees as volunteers who walk "beats" and do desk duty, freeing up more officers to be on the streets. (County Sheriff's Lt. Frank Vulich said a SCOPE project is planned for the county, also.)

Fortuna schools work closely with Bialous and Bradshaw, and that city's businesses help, too, by offering discounts to students who vow to stay off drugs.

That's great, said Blauvelt, because the schools alone can't solve these problems: "The business community, clergy and parents must be willing to lend support."

And don't forget the young people, he said: "If you don't involve the kids, you will never solve the problem. They have to feel they have a stake in it, too."

Of course, the youths themselves aren't necessarily wild about having mom and/or dad suddenly showing up at school.

"As students grow older, they face much more complex social pressures and begin asserting their independence from their parents. Many actually discourage their parents from coming to school."

That's from a report by Leon Lynn of the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools, based in Madison, Wis. The center is nearing the end of a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education to study ways in which the structures of schools can be changed to improve student performance.

"We're working closely with schools around the country that really are doing something different, studying what is working and what isn't," Lynn said in a telephone interview from his home in Wisconsin.

One school, for example, allowed students to choose their classes, much the same way college students do. Teachers developed their own ideas and then "marketed" them to the student population.

Another school established a "parent center," a room where parents could meet, talk about problems and share ideas. A community development coordinator heads up the "parent empowerment" project, which also gets help from volunteers and three parents who are paid $6 an hour. Lynn said the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools will release its findings in October.

The common thread of community involvement that winds its way through these projects is most prominent in a concept being studied by a conglomeration of Humboldt County groups. Called Communities That Care, it may come to this area via a grant from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, or OJJDP.

"Prevention efforts cannot be effectively directed by public agencies alone - a dedicated community coalition of citizens, private businesses and public agencies must direct a collaborative effort which draws on public, private and volunteer resources," says the OJJDP, and it endorses the Communities That Care game plan.

At its most basic, that game plan involves identifying both risk factors and "protective" (or anti-risk) factors. It urges early intervention (as young as second grade), and includes academic, social and family aspects. Agencies interested in the grant project - which offers $250,000 per year for a total of three years - include the Probation Department, its Juvenile Justice program and several Native American organizations.

"Dealing with adolescents once they have exhibited problem behaviors has shown only modest success," say the developers of Communities That Care, Drs. Richard Catalano and David Hawkins. "It is costly, because it must be directed individually - and does nothing to break the cycle of the problems spreading to other young people through peer networks.

"It is as if we were providing expensive ambulances at the bottom of a cliff to pick up the youngsters who fall off, rather than building a fence at the top to keep them from falling in the first place."

Lisa Ladd-Wilson is a Eureka free-lance writer.

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