For more than 20 years, P.D. O'Keefe was a Fairfax County police officer and was all too familiar with the trouble teen-agers can find themselves in, especially when it comes to drugs and alcohol.
So O'Keefe was not surprised when a survey, administered in January and February 2001 to Fairfax County eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders, found 21 percent of the eighth-graders, 36 percent of the 10th-graders and 53 percent of the 12th-graders reported they had consumed alcohol within the past month.
But even the now-retired officer was surprised last May when the survey results were released to find that 18.5 percent of county students seriously considered suicide in the past year, with 8 percent actually attempting suicide at least once in the past 12 months.
"When the survey was first suggested to be done and the projections were given to parents, I think a lot of people were taken aback. The results were about what I expected, and they showed we're no different from anyone else," said O'Keefe, now the information specialist for the school system's Safe and Drug-Free Youth Section. "The other issue was the depression issue. I was even taken aback at the level of depression. When you think of youth, you don't think of high numbers of depression."
IN RESPONSE to the national Communities That Care Youth Survey, which was given to nearly 12,000 county students and had a 40-percent return rate, several community and religious groups, along with county services, got together and created Fairfax Cares, to educate the community about the survey results and offer ways for the community as a whole to get involved with the county's young people.
"The goal is to drive the information into the community," said Jeff Craven, coordinator of Fairfax Cares. "To let parents and neighbors know what is going on. There is a lot of good information out there."
To that end, the members of Fairfax Cares have updated the "Not My Child" educational booklet, now called "Everyone's Child!" It contains the survey results as well as warning signs, prevention and intervention tips and a list of resources, complete with phone numbers, where families can find help. The group has prepared a kit to assist civic and religious groups to hold their own educational meeting, including a sample invitation, an agenda, discussion topics and a short video.
"We feel strongly that none of us will be able to support the kids without the community," said Tricia Hutcherson, director of the Fairfax Partnership for Youth. "We're trying to motivate the organizations to take on a piece of the issues and heighten interest across the county."
ONE OF THE REASONS for getting the community involved — in what is typically considered issues to be resolved within the family — is that many of the children in the survey said they felt disconnected with the community and also reported spending up to four hours alone at home after school, Hutcherson said. She said it was important to make the students feel as if they are as much a part of the community as anyone else.
"It really does take a group. Neighbors come in, for example, in trying to have more youth activities at the pool or to organize structured sports that promote positive activities," said O'Keefe. "Certainly, many of us wouldn't want neighbors being nosy and questioning our kids about if they're doing drugs, but there are ways the community can be involved."
O'Keefe said it was important to involve the entire community because the reality is that not all parents are as involved with their children as they should be.
"We hope to educate parents and neighbors about the reality of what it's like for our middle- and high-schoolers," Craven said. "If we're educated not only about the problems but where we can get help and what to look for, we're all better off."
SO FAR the kit has been receiving positive feedback, Craven said, and the "Everybody's Child!" booklet will be sent home with seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders. He also said student reaction to the survey and the efforts of Fairfax Cares have been good, although several students have told him the figures reported in the survey are low.
Hutcherson said it was important for the group to get young people involved, which has included participation on the video and educational events at the county teen centers.
"Now when we speak to community groups or our local politicians, we're not pulling national numbers from somewhere," O'Keefe said. "And on the positive side, there are a lot of kids that aren't doing anything. When you have local information, it isn't just anybody. It's our kids."