By Gerhard Schneibel
gerhard@reporternewspapers.net

A look at area youth can simultaneously reveal pictures of troubled kids endangering society and of healthy, happy kids making a contribution and working toward their futures.

Reconnecting with youth is a responsibility that rests on the shoulders of adults, speakers said March 16 at the Sandy Springs Civic Roundtable’s third and final meeting of this year.

Julie Koriakin, the executive director of the Cowart Family Ashford Dunwoody YMCA in Brookhaven, said: “We need to remember that youth is an asset.”

In a society where many families are supported by two working parents, children need at least three trustworthy nonparent adults in their lives. They also need three or four hours of extracurricular activities each week and a connection to an institution like the YMCA or a religious community, she said.

“Know the kids on your street. Youth that have a perception that adults in the community value and care about them will be better off,” she said. “We can often tell children subtly that they are incapable of making decisions and what they think doesn’t matter.”

Jim Anderson, Sandy Springs’ chief municipal judge, said that in addition to seeing troubled youths in his courtroom, he has “the perspective of a baseball coach and a Scout leader.”

“I don’t lose focus on the fact that youth are our most precious resource, and most of them are not troubled,” he said.

But Anderson issued more than 500 arrest and search warrants in 2008, he said. “Too many times those were for children as young as 14, many of them felony warrants.”

Many of those arrests were gang-related, and local youth gangs often are controlled by adults, the judge said.

The main draw of a gang “is a sense of belonging and meaning for a kid. If we could just create that in a positive way, gangs wouldn’t exist,” Koriakin said. “We are disconnecting from youth at an unprecedented rate, and there are a lot of reasons for that, but the first thing we need to do is recognize that it is happening.”

Laws today are tougher on behaviors that used to warrant a slap on the wrist, but the severity of crimes committed by youths also has escalated, he said. Hard drugs are “pervasive,” and marijuana is “everywhere.”

When children are about 12 years old, they enter a “separation” phase and begin to look for a peer group. When that happens, they are at risk of joining a gang if they don’t have the support network they need at home, Anderson said.

“Most of the troubled youth I see come from some aspect of the breakdown of the nuclear family,” he said. “Be a pain in the butt to your child. Don’t worry about being the best friend; that’s not your job.”

While gangs for the most part are centered on apartment complexes, the drugs, alcohol and mental illnesses on which crime feeds can be found in all walks of life.

“My personal belief is that those three are interconnected,” Anderson said. “If kids grow up in that kind of an atmosphere, where are they going to next? For those kids that are already in trouble — I’m not sure you can do a heck of a lot; just give it your best shot.”

Kamaryn Norris, a senior at North Springs Charter High School, spoke at the roundtable. She plays lacrosse and is involved with the YMCA and the Invisible Children’s Club, which benefits war orphans in northern Uganda.

“My atmosphere has been really family-oriented, and the adults that are involved in my life are always there for me,” she said.

Jack Healy, a senior at North Springs, also spoke. He said the school’s Junior ROTC program involves him in community service.

“Students need a feeling of belonging, and if they don’t have that, it’s hard for them to stay on the straight path,” he said. “As an adult, you kind of have to find a student you can mentor.”

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