Mother and son share perspectives on Youth Congress
Youth Congress is an annual event held by the Douglas County Youth Initiative, connecting youth with legislators to discuss global issues and how they directly impact the Douglas County community. Students then work together to formulate solutions. This year's Youth Congress was held on September 26. Below, a mother (Kathy Brown) and son (Adam Bezdek, a Sophomore at Castle View High School) each share their perspective on the experience.
When my son and I signed up for the Douglas County Youth Congress, truth be told, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would this be a simple way for students to clock in, not go to school and get their 7.5 hours of community service or would this be a impactful event that helps students to problem solve and become change agents? Surely, I wanted to believe the latter, but the cynic in me was sold out to the former.
The event opened with a powerful internet safety presentation from Gary Dawson with the 18th Judicial District, that tied all the Youth Congress study topics together. Then, the students left for their assigned groups led by subject matter experts like mental health counselors, elected officials police officers, FBI agents and others who spoke eloquently to the compelling issue at hand.
To be clear, many of the topics being discussed had been broached with my son before - in car rides, discussions at the kitchen table and as a means to develop classroom assignments. I wasn’t sure he was listening and considering the severity of those issues and how prevalent they were in his own little school community. After all, he's a 16 year old boy. He's invincible. Just like I once was.
My son was placed in the human trafficking group with Douglas County Commissioner, David Weaver, a YESS program facilitator and a DCSO detective who also works with an FBI Task Force called Innocence Lost. Colorado, and more specifically, Douglas County, is greatly affected by human trafficking.
This group, armed with knowledge from subject matter experts in the room, was tasked to create local solutions to this growing problem. With images of the movie, “Taken” in their minds, the students were told that trafficking is much subtler and more invasive from a psychological perspective.
Students learned that traffickers appeal to the problems of children, and for a moment, appears to be able to solve them and provide a better life. Through social media, efficient and practiced traffickers can psychologically lure their victims with the seemingly limited data provided – but it’s enough for an experienced trafficker to profile a victim. And parents, it's data that we don't even consider as potentially vulnerable to strangers. And sometimes, we provide the opening in our social media posts and profiles. It's enough for any experienced predator to use.
Then once the victim is in his grasp, the trafficker adds fictitious debt to the victim’s minds, appealing to the basic needs of children who cannot provide for themselves. Then the trafficker or "pimp" degrades and abuses them until they form a trauma bond with their captor.
The average age of victims is 12-14 – younger than the students attending the event.
These discussions occurred in multiple rooms on multiple topics. From sexting to mental health to peer mentors to Sources of Strength and many others.
I listened to students engage in conversations surrounding the psychological health of their peers at school and at one point, a female student in the mental health group made a very sobering statement:
“We’re very desensitized to everything.”
That issue was confirmed in the sexting group across the hall. An officer with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office explained how smart phones and texting/messaging has contributed to a lower emotional IQ among students, rendering them, “desensitized.”
He explained that when a child can send an emoji as an emotional statement, they are not able to process emotions with another person or see an emotional reaction and interpret body language.
As one student explained, “We’re on our ninth Advanced Placement class. We’re unstable. We don’t sleep. The joke is, ‘I want to kill myself.’ But how can we tell the difference between someone who is serious or not?”
Then, there’s the need for acceptance. Enough of a need that a female student would text naked images of herself to a male student who merely asks. Students in the sexting class were asked, “How do we get kids to understand the dangers and criminal liability of sexting?”
Students wrote their thoughts on post it notes and affixed them to a large, white piece of paper on the wall.
One student offered her perception of the issue, “There is a movement where women are showing their bodies and teens are copying. But, it’s still child pornography and it’s still illegal.”
The students in each group then presented their solutions. Many performed skits that detailed the problem, and presented the solution at the end.
The common thread throughout the day was really about mental health issues affecting our students, as it seemed that almost every topic displayed had a foundation in mental health.
As a parent and as a district employee, I was concerned by the issues that our students must confront and that parents need to understand. As a parent, I struggle to grasp the unavoidable conflict between childhood naivety and a predatory world in which others can secretly and quietly prey upon them.
Yet, as a parent, it was somewhat of a relief that my son was hearing real stories from people on the front lines. He was hearing about actual problems that do exist in his small world.
And yet, the students were tackling issues with genuine concern and openness. I saw teamwork in each group as they sought to problem solve some very tough issues. I watched the development and growth of students in one short day.
On the car ride home, I talked with my son. He was glad he was awarded the community service hours and said he wanted to do this again. He also lamented that he would have to write about his perspective and experience. But, his eyes were opened to a dangerous, nearby world that he has recently struggled to comprehend. He still doesn’t fully understand why this threatening world exists, but he is better equipped to recognize it, how it affects students and how he can be a part of the solution.
The Douglas County Youth Congress was an event where students in Douglas County got together to talk about and find solutions to some of the problems that exist today in our school district. I was one of only two Castle View students who attended. We earned community service hours for the day and my mom told me to go because I would learn a lot.
I was put in the sex trafficking group. It was led by a county commissioner and two Douglas County police officers, one who works with the FBI on a project called, Innocence Lost.
What we all learned in the group was pretty scary. I never knew that sex trafficking exists right here and my classmates could even be victims. We were told that it’s not like the movie, “Taken” where it shows violence and kidnapping and guns. A lot of it happens when kids are on the internet and meet people who pose as older teenagers that want to rescue them from their problems.
It made me think more about why my mom watches my social media and tells me not to give too much information or allow people that I don’t know access to my profiles about me. I just thought she was being nosy and overprotective. I see that she knows a lot about these issues.
The officers told us that the average age for kids who are lured by traffickers is between 12-14 years old. And the kids, mostly girls, run away from home and to this person who promises to help them. The kids don’t have any money to live so they are given food, shelter and clothing by this person. Then, if they want to leave, this person threatens them or makes them believe that they need them so that they can’t leave. And so do the other people in the house. They become a really sick family.
So, what we had to do at the Youth Congress was help create solutions to the problems they wanted to be addressed. Our group discovered that many of the problems had a background in mental health issues. But the easiest way for our group to address this was to do an awareness campaign for parents and kids regarding social media and internet safety.
We all want kids to get along with their families and we all know that sometimes we have issues with our parents and siblings. So, we need to address how families deal with each member. But, we also need to make sure that even if we are not getting along or we are having a hard time, that social media and strangers don’t become the person we go to for help, thinking they can solve our problems. And we certainly don’t allow them into our lives to threaten us.