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Well-known youth advocates battled on behalf of local teenagers at Tuesday’s county council meeting.
“I’ve been working for the welfare of Los Alamos young folk for almost 40 years, including 18 years in elected office,” said Vice Chair Morrie Pongratz of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board (JJAB).
“We’ve all heard the saying, ‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.’ We recognize the truth in the African proverb: ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ That is especially true in this day and age where frequently both parents are working and especially in Los Alamos where we have few extended families. Our parents need help.”
The school district has surveyed students for the last 20 plus years, he said. It finds that younger teens are a pretty healthy lot but as they get older a substantial percentage engage in risky behaviors.
“Suicide, sexual activity, drug use, DWI, smoking and truancy,” Pongratz said. “Our teens are not a static population like we seniors. They change from freshman year to senior year. So our efforts to improve their welfare are more on the prevention side than the reformation side.”
More than 10 percent of teens have attempted suicide – more than once, according to the survey. More than 20 percent of high school seniors report getting drunk once or more in the last two weeks and more than 10 percent of them reported driving while under the influence. More than 10 percent of local teenagers say they smoke regularly and 50 percent say they have engaged in sexual intercourse.
“We measure the assets that our young people have, and find that less than 30 percent of them feel that our community values youth,” Pongratz said.
Municipal Judge Alan Kirk chairs JJAB. He spoke of the segments of the community that have nice facilities to gather in and that teenagers have no place of their own. The older population has the Betty Ehart Senior Center. Even area animals have a brand new shelter, he said.
Council Vice Chair Sharon Stover said there is a gap when it comes to a place for youth to gather and participate in activities.
County Councilor Robert Gibson expressed concern with the lack of data from the previous teen center inside the Community Building. It failed and he wanted to know whether it had served to address any of the issues troubling youth. Kirk said the previous teen center was designed by adults and what they wanted for youth. The proposed center would be created by teens.
County Councilor Ralph Phelps also expressed concern with the way the request for the teen center was being issued. There are many unknowns such as the exact dollar amount of the project and where the center could be housed near the high school.
Pongratz told councilors that he read on page 76 of the fiscal year 2011 budget that the county has about $25 million in general fund reserves, $14 million of which is “unassigned.”
“JJAB is asking for less than 1 percent of the general fund reserves,” he said. “If you don’t want to spend the reserves, you could use the interest on the reserves to provide a recurring source of funds for our teens.”
JJAB submitted a Phase 1 Capital Improvement Program request for a conceptual study for the construction of a teen center. Since that process is likely to take several years, JJAB and the local Y would like to operate this “bridge” teen center, for which the proposed budget is about $160,000.
Councilor Vincent Chiravalle moved to direct staff to issue a request for proposals for a teen center.
“In addition to the schools, I feel the county has a responsibility to ensure teens have a place to go,” he said. “The community has to do its part and we shouldn’t pinch pennies when it comes to our youth.”
The motion passed 4-2 with Gibson and Phelps voting against the motion as written. Councilor Nona Bowman was absent.
Carol A. Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org