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Pulling No Punches

Largely student-run, Whitman’s fourth biennial Youth Summit deals frankly with often uncomfortable subjects affecting the lives of high schoolers.

Walt Whitman High School junior Jessica Coulter sums up the biennial Whitman Youth Summit this way: “We try to get speakers that are relevant to problems that are in high school.”

Those problems: low self esteem, negative body image, sexual assault, discrimination against minorities, gangs, academic pressure, exclusion, sexually transmitted diseases, stress, family strife, cultural identity, religious identity, sexual identity, depression and suicide.

That’s an abbreviated list, and while high schools attempt to address all of those challenges through curriculum and counseling, Whitman’s summit also devoted two morning class periods to addressing them through an event largely organized by students.

Whitman held its fourth youth summit March 28. More than 100 speakers — most of them psychologists, doctors, and therapists who specialize in dealing with teenagers — conducted 40-minute seminars on a broad range of topics.

EVERY WHITMAN student attended two sessions of the talks and optional seminars were held during the two lunch periods.

The summit is organized jointly by Whitman parents and a 20-member student committee.

"They've done 80, 90 percent [of the organization]," said Beth Isen, a parent organizer of the student committee.

The organizers invite speakers from local universities, hospitals, graduate programs, and non-profits. Many are Whitman parents themselves.

And while talking to students about sex or other topics may not be groundbreaking, the summit has a pull-no-punches attitude. Speakers aren’t constrained by curricula and each one provides a phone number or e-mail address that students can use to reach them privately, outside of school.

The idea is to “bring the speakers to the students to show them what’s available,” said Annie Austin, a sophomore organizing committee member. “A lot of kids aren’t aware that there are resources available for them that they might need.”

Austin and other organizers freely admit that sometimes the speakers’ messages get through and sometimes they don’t.

“I’ve been talking to my friends and a lot of them [say], ‘Oh God, Youth Summit. So dumb. They don’t know anything about what our lives are like. This is going to be a waste of time but at least we get shorter classes,’” she said. But Austin said she also watched a session in which students she thought would be disrespectful or uninterested were actively engaged.

Participation varies, said Whitman Assistant Principal Ben OuYang.

"Those who directly feel they may be related to some issue — [it's] very good," he said. "That's the benefit of it."

A student who sits silently through a presentation still might later turn to a resource he learned about there. On topics like homosexuality, depression and eating disorders, a student is unlikely to ask a question that would identify herself as anorexic, for example. But she might visit a Web site or contact a support group when she gets home.

AS THE YOUTH Summit is currently structured, students don’t get to choose which presentations they attend. They vote informally ahead of time and classes are assigned speakers accordingly, but if an individual wants to learn about stress management and he gets assigned to “understanding differences,” he’s out of luck.

“If there was some way that kids could choose something that would apply to their own lives then that would be better,” Austin said. “For the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, like half of my friends are gay and none of them were in that class.”

Coulter agreed.

“I think an ideal situation, it would be great if we just had a list of speakers … and had students submit who they wanted to see,” she said, though she also felt that the quality of speakers overall has been improved through the use of student evaluations.

“If someone has really bad evaluations, we’ll take them off the list,” she said.

Austin suggested moving more presentations of broad interest to the optional lunch periods. The committee will look at ways to implement greater choice next time.

Litt: Realistic Body Image

Nutritionist Ann Litt isn’t a big fan of those charts and tables that tell you whether your weight is healthy.

Litt advises the Washington Redskins and said that virtually every player — some incredibly lean and muscular — is unhealthy according to the body mass index, one such measurement.

One of the best ways to define healthy weight is simple common sense: what Litt calls the “eyeball method.”

“Look at yourself and if you see some normal resemblance of a body in the reflection you see, that’s a really good way to define normal weight range,” she said, speaking to a Walt Whitman High School English class.

At least, it used to be.

“The problem is you all measure yourself up to very unrealistic body images,” Litt said. “There aren’t any role models out there for normal eating anymore. … The presentation of normal bodies in the media is nonexistent, especially for young women but more and more for young men.”

Add to that an ever-changing nutrition landscape. Are eggs good or bad this week? Avocados? Coffee? Since when is there something called “good cholesterol”?

The incidence of eating disorders is on the rise and a healthy body image is rare even among those who are not diagnosed with a disorder.

“WHEN I WAS in high school, I didn’t know anybody that was on a diet,” Litt, who lives in Potomac, told the students. “It’s very different today.”

In a show of hands, almost every student in the room indicated that they are currently on a diet or have a friend who is. That may not seem strange given the problem of obesity. Litt works with many patients who are trying to lose weight.

But she works predominantly with teenagers who have eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.

“Everyone who has a diagnosed eating disorder has dieted at some point,” she said. “Dieting is a risk factor for somebody who’s going to develop an eating disorder.”

And since dieting can lead to binge eating, “The more you diet, the fatter you get,” she said.

LITT OFFERED students tips on healthy eating and having a healthy weight.

Healthy weight she said, is a range defined by normal body function, and the ability to maintain the weight with a satisfying diet and flexible life patterns.

Eating habits that begin with realistic expectations and concepts of body image are likely to short-circuit the development of life-threatening eating disorders.

Young people with eating disorders need help from their friends, she said.

“Denial is a hallmark of eating disorders,” she said. “Health centers, nurses, coaches, counselors in school, guidance counselors, are really pretty savvy at helping you help your friend. … Don’t worry about betraying a confidence because very often eating disorder kids do not know how to come forward and say ‘I need help,’ and they might tell you in confidence with the hope that you will help them get into treatment.”

— Ken Millstone

Griffin: Big ‘D’ and Little ‘d’ Depression

The 2006 Whitman Youth Summit didn’t have an official theme, as it did in previous years. Students heard presentations on gang violence, stress management, sexual health and dealing with parents.

But every student had at least one seminar on depression.

That makes sense to Suzanne Griffin, a psychiatrist and Georgetown University professor, who spoke to an eleventh-grade honors English class.

One in four people will suffer at least one depressive episode in his lifetime. Depressed people endure changes in sleep and eating patterns and are at a dramatically increased risk of dying by suicide. Moreover, the increased risk of death for depressed people is greater than can be accounted for by suicide alone, in large part due to cardiac risks, Griffin said.

Those symptoms and risks pertain to what is sometimes called “clinical depression,” and what Griffin calls “biological depression,” something marked by measurable chemical changes in the brain, and a duration of greater than two weeks.

Depressed people need the help of friends and loved ones who can help get them treatment.

But what about just feeling down? Isn’t there some gray area between contentment and serious depression?

“A slump, I think that’s what a lot of young people go through. … How can you deal with that, if it’s not depression with a capital ‘D’ but more a lowercase ‘d,’” asked Todd Michaels, a teacher.

GRIFFIN SAID that little ‘d’ depression absolutely exists, and that like big ‘D’ depression it boils down to brain chemistry, and that there are several proven ways to combat it.

“Number one on my list is something that’s in short supply for you guys: good sleep. Get plenty of rest. Not enough sleep more than doubles your risk for depression symptoms,” she said.

Other tips:

* Healthy eating

* Exercise: “A number of studies have documented in very controlled environments that exercise alone — nothing else but aerobic exercise — can improve depression. And not just depression with a little ‘d’ but depression with a big ‘D.’ … It gives you endorphins but it also stabilizes levels of other neurotransmitters as well in the right balance.”

* Human interaction: “It might be just sitting with this person quietly, because they might be irritated by all kinds of stimuli. … It has a tremendous anti-depressant effect.”

* Positive thinking: “My mother used to recommend it when I was your age and I really thought she was crazy and stupid. But it turns out that positive thinking, predicting success [works.] … If you have the choice of believing one thing or the other thing, you choose to believe the more positive one. … You will feel better if you chose the positive choice, because it has a chemical effect [and] at the bottom, foundational level, everything is chemical.”

* Friends: “The more people you have in your social network — the more connections you have and the more groups you belong to — the longer you will live and the healthier you will be. It’s been documented in several studies.”

— Ken Millstone

Taylor: Repeat Defender

Lauren Taylor’s self-defense class doesn’t start with the palm-blow-to-nose or with how to use your elbows if you’re grabbed from behind.

It starts with words.

“Self-defense is prevention, avoidance, awareness, using your words, setting limits,” Taylor told students who chose to spend their lunch hour on the wrestling mats. Taylor’s organization, Defend Yourself, teaches self-defense classes throughout the area, with an emphasis on preventing assaults against women, lesbians and gay men, abuse survivors and people with disabilities.

“It’s not just like how to knee someone in the groin, it’s also how to tell someone, ‘I don’t like that’ or ‘That’s not okay with me,’” Taylor said.

About 70 percent of attacks on women and 50 percent of attacks on men are by people that they know. “So this stranger in the parking lot scenario is pretty unusual, even though that’s what people are most scared of,” Taylor said.

In the case of “property attacks,” where the attacker’s lone purpose is getting a wallet, bag, or even a car, Taylor’s advice is simple: “The safest thing to do if you care about your personal safety is to give them your stuff.”

She focuses on “personal attacks,” where the attacker’s goal is to hurt you. In those cases, the first step is to consider what tools you have available. Often it’s possible to simply leave — leave the room, leave the party, leave the threatening situation.

Taylor and her students stand up and start practicing techniques with words, expression, tone, and body language. “Attackers” approach would-be victims, who practice squaring their shoulders, dropping one foot back, raising their hands in a “stop” gesture and saying “Stop!” or “Don’t touch me!”

Taylor spends most of the 40-minute session on this technique alone, stressing the loudness, sharpness, and the unified effect of tone and expression.

Then she teaches palm-to-the-nose, stomping-the-attacker’s-foot, and kick-to-the-knee.

“I thought it was really, really useful,” said sophomore Jhee-soo Ahn. “I learned a lot.”

— Ken Millstone

What’s Wrong with Parents?

What’s the matter with kids these days? Has anybody seen the way they dress? All the drinking they do? And that music --- how can they even stand that music?

Robert Roth thinks adults may want to look within, or at least among their own age bracket, if they find themselves asking these questions. Behind much of their behavior, there’s an adult who’s profiting off it.

“It’s the adults’ drugs, sex and rock and roll that’s dripping down to the kids,” said Roth, who specializes in substance abuse, depression and family issues at Montgomery General Hospital. “When you go out there, it’s all adult-driven.”

This year, Whitman parent Marjorie Wilson asked Roth to speak about what parents do wrong from their child’s point of view. Roth views this as a two-way street, and issues challenges both to teenagers and their parents about ways they can improve their relationships during a sometimes rocky phase of life for the child. First the news flash for the teenagers: in all likelihood, your parents love you and respect you.

It’s largely a matter of the child’s perspective, Roth said. There’s a limited extent to which they can change a parent’s behavior, but what a child can do is change their attitude toward their parents. It helps to take some initiative with some essential household chores, like taking the garbage out. “I put a positive spin on what kids can do,” Roth said. “I can improve your relationship with [your parents] in three days. All you have to do is kiss ass.”

Roth likes to issue a challenge to parents, too. Spend one full day with your child --- full work hours, plus some overtime --- with one caveat: the parent can’t bring any cash or a credit card. The idea is to enjoy time together without expensive distractions that can prevent parent and child from communicating. A Metro pass, Roth allows, if they wish to go to one of the Smithsonian museums.

Whether he’s challenging a teenager or his or her parents, one of Roth’s central themes is for families to alter or fine-tune the way they live and permit more legitimate face time. Roth balks at using the phrase “family values,” because of how politically loaded it’s become, but that’s what is so important, and is often missing. “We need to go back to family values, go back to eating dinner together at least once a week,” Roth said. “A lot of kids are out there looking for family.”

— Alex Scofield

Torchia: Know the Risks

How much do high school students know about oral sex? Quite a bit, says Tara Torchia, a sexual health coordinator at the University of Maryland --- until it gets to the part about the risks it entails.

Torchia is used to talking to college students. Whitman’s Youth Summit is one of the few times each year where she has the opportunity to speak to public high school students. She has spoken at previous Whitman Youth Summits, and starts the presentation with a “how much do you know?” quiz.  The idea is to make students more comfortable discussing these issues in a group, but that’s becoming less and less of a problem these days. “Students are talking about this a lot more frankly than they used to,” Torchia said. “It’s gotten a lot more mainstream.”

The quiz is followed by an interactive game in which students determine whether certain sexual behavior is “no risk,” “low risk” or “high risk” --- for pregnancy, as well as for venereal disease transmission.

“One of the things that strikes me every year is how much students know about the behavior, and how much they don’t know about the consequences,” Torchia said. Compared to several years ago, Torchia said, “Students are a lot more informed about contraception, but not as informed about sexually transmitted infections.

Like many of Whitman’s Youth Summit speakers, Torchia is comfortable talking about issues that many adults are loath to discuss --- especially in front of a high school crowd. She resents the notion that discussing the consequences of sexual behavior will makes students more likely to engage in it. “If we stop allowing research to be conducted,” she said, “in the future it might be difficult for us to recognize [what’s happening].”

“We have students that are dealing with these issues in high school, and some that won’t deal with it until college, or after college,” Torchia said.

— Alex Scofield

DeRiso: Beyond the Slogans

Sheila DeRiso never tells students to “just say no.”

DeRiso could take or leave the sloganeering crap, and she knows how ineffective it is to a high school student.

DeRiso grew up in South Bronx, N.Y., and she still has the accent and straight, in-your-face frankness of a New Yorker. Now the clinical supervisor at Montgomery General Hospital’s Emergency and Pediatric Department, DeRiso has no problem talking about issues that make most people squeamish — they were the day-to-day realities of her job as a nurse in a hospital critical care emergency room.

There’s the young man who got drunk at a party, tried mescaline, and under both influences dove off an 11th-floor balcony. “I had the privilege of telling the kid that he was paralyzed and blind for the rest of his life,” DeRiso said. “All the kid would tell me was, ‘Sheila, please kill me.’”

There are the girls, far too many to count, who drank at a party until they passed out, then were raped multiple times by multiple assailants. “You try having to tell a mother or a father that their daughter’s been raped multiple times,” she said.

There were the boys who drank at a party until they passed out and were sodomized — yes, it happens to guys, too.

There are the parents DeRiso called at 3 a.m., telling them that their child is in critical condition after a drunk driving accident. Before sunrise, DeRiso will ask the parents if they want their dead child to be an organ donor.

DeRISO DIDN’T LEAVE all this behind when she left New York. They happen here, in the affluent Washington, D.C. suburbs. “I’m telling you, there’s a lot of risky stuff going on,” DeRiso said.

DeRiso will bring her ambulatory bag and her rape kit. She’ll bring the tube she’ll insert in a patient when his lungs collapse, or the catheter she inserts into another patient who can’t eat (drunk driving accidents). She’ll bring a body bag, one-size-fits-all, where accident victims go after they’re pronounced dead on the scene. “Come up and handle the stuff. This is real equipment I use every day,” DeRiso said.

DeRiso has been describing her job to teenagers for more than 12 years; it’s been about six years since county schools asked her to come talk to students. It needn’t be that formal, though. DeRiso is willing to meet up with students who want to talk, “individual show-and-tells,” she calls them. She’ll meet the students at their house, at her house, at McDonalds, at Starbucks, wherever they want. Nobody’s a captive audience; not even for a school event. She’ll sign the form if they want to leave.

“I really don’t believe in the philosophy of ‘just say no,’” DeRiso said. “I’m going to show you the consequences — you’re going to make an informed decision about the risks you’re taking.”

“You can see the light bulbs going on in their heads, and they see that I’m not kidding,” DeRiso said. “When the kids know that I’m not trying to trick them, we often talk about [their] risky behavior.”

UNDERSTANDING RISKS is only part of the battle, DeRiso said. Students might appreciate the gravity of a situation they’re in, but getting out of it is another story. No matter how things may have spun out of control, teens are often reluctant to ask for help. They don’t want to get their friends in trouble, for one thing. They also might fear being punished for doing the right thing — after all, they wound up there somehow. How do they get out of these sticky situations?

Parents can help. DeRiso talks to them, too, just as frankly. She suggests students have a code phrase to tell their parents if they’re in a situation they want to escape, something like “I lost my contacts” or “I lost my inhaler,” to spare themselves of having to describe the situation. Parents meet their kid at least a block away from the house, and when they pick their child up, must say, “Thanks for making a good decision.” The time to discuss any bad decisions is later.

Some students stay in touch. DeRiso receives e-mail from some of them years later when they’re in college and wind up in a situation like the ones they discussed years before.

“I think it’s a combination of education and prevention,” DeRiso said. “You have to hit them hard and often.”

— Alex Scofield