Middle school is perhaps one of the toughest time periods of growing up. It is the awkward transition from child to teen, when big changes and added responsibilities come into play. For many middle school students, it is their social network that matters most.
"You don't want to be a quote unquote 'loser,' but you don't want to be a snob either," said Kelsea Hough, a 7th grade student at Cooper Middle School.
Lizzy Belair, also a 7th grade student at Cooper, agrees that friends are the most stressful aspect of junior high.
"You have your group of friends from elementary school, but then you come to middle school and they put you in different units and you make friends with different people," said Belair.
Last Thursday, the Safe Community Coalition, Inc. held its 10th annual Middle School Forum at McLean Baptist Church. The SCC is an all volunteer organization which serves the area defined by the Langley and McLean High School pyramids. Its purpose is to promote community safety through special youth programs and group dialogues.
Every year, seventh grade students from Cooper, Longfellow, Potomac and Langley Middle Schools are given the opportunity to meet with McLean, Langley and Potomac High School students to discuss their issues and concerns. The SCC compiles these concerns and uses them as guidelines for its programs the following year. In her introductory remarks at last week's forum, SCC president Jan Auerbach asked students for one favor.
"We have sponsored programs for youth and for parents for over 10 years now, and we do a lot of things to help you grow up in this community," said Auerbach. "This is one of the most important events that we put on, and the most important thing I can ask you to do is to be honest."
Dranesville District Supervisor Joan DuBois stopped by the forum to encourage students to think about their futures.
"This is a day for you to listen, to share and to reflect in the weeks to come who you want to be," said DuBois. "We are proud of you ... and I want you to make this a safe place for me to live in."
THE SEVENTH GRADE STUDENTS were broken down into eight groups: Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Use; Stress — The Good and The Bad; Time Management; Friendships; Self Image/Self-Esteem; Early Dating; Family Dynamics and Media. Each group was facilitated by two high school students, and discussion was able to take place without any adults present.
Flo King, a 17-year-old junior at McLean High School, was one of the SCC facilitators for the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Use group. King said that working with her group made her realize that "they really don't have the same issues that high school kids have."
"I was actually surprised that they haven't had a lot of interaction with these things [drugs and alcohol]," said King.
King says that for her, school is the main source of stress in her life.
"I'm getting ready for college, I play sports and I'm in the SGA [Student Government Association], so it's all about balancing everything, and time management," said King.
Kelsea Hough was in King's group and says that they spent some time discussing cigarettes and whether or not they had come into contact with them.
"There was one person who got offered a cigarette at a party, and he said he took it but he didn't like it," said Hough.
Langley senior David Moody, 17, facilitated the Media group. They discussed how the media presents sex, and how youth is affected by that.
"We talked about what they already know — that they spend a lot of time watching TV and that what they see is spread into mainstream ideals," said Moody.
Not all students felt that their assigned topics were relevant to them. Cooper student Lizzy Belair, 13, was in the Early Dating group.
"I would have much rather been in the group that talked about drugs and alcohol because those are things that are talked about more," said Belair. "I don't think it's a good topic. What's bad about dating?"
Fellow group member 13-year-old Sara Zuccari, also a student at Cooper, agreed with Belair.
"It was really awkward," said Zuccari. "In middle school there isn't really dating. You just hang out with your friends."
For Julia Diamond, a 13-year-old Potomac School seventh grader, her after school commitments present the most stress.
"I don't have a problem with school, I have a problem with homework," said Diamond. "I go to bed at 11 or 12 and I get up at 7 — sometimes 7:30, but that means I am really rushing."
TEACHERS AND ADMINISTRATORS were also given the chance to open up and give their input. SCC president Jan Auerbach facilitated a group made up of faculty representatives from all of the various schools. The line between parenting and teaching dominated much of the conversation, particularly when it came to the topics of dress code and inappropriate use of the Internet.
"I have called a mom before and said, I don't think your child was wearing an appropriate outfit and had her say 'oh I just bought that for her last week, it's the cutest thing,'" said Sonya Williams, a guidance counselor at Langley High School.
Several male faculty members said that it was particularly hard for them to enforce dress code rules with female students.
"It's very difficult," said Stephen Wojciechowski, assistant principal at McLean High School. "If you say something to a young lady about a skirt or a blouse, they come back with 'why are you looking at me?'"
The dangers of the Internet and so-called "cyber bullying" were also hot topics. In particular, the use of the on-line Web page databases such as Myspace.com, Facepages.com and other similar sites, is of growing concern to teachers.
"It's funny, they get mad at us as teachers and say 'I can't believe you looked at my page,' but they can't make the connection that it's open for the whole world to see," said Kerry Kirk, a teacher at The Potomac School. "They don't understand what is too much information to give."
Sonya Williams says that these sites are frequently used for negative purposes.
"Myspace is a form of slamming," said Williams. "It opens the door for mean girls and it opens the door for girls to be clique-ish."
Even more concerning to faculty are the pictures that are posted on these sites.
"There is a site called Webshots, where they are posting pictures of things that they shouldn't be doing after school hours," said Williams. "They are explicit pictures. They are in people's homes, and these are pictures of sex, drugs, you name it."
Richard Culp, a teacher at Longfellow, said that often schools are behind the ball on discovering this type of Internet abuse.
"We had one student at Longfellow where by the time the parents had seen it, it was too late," said Culp. "It had already been seen by half the school and the damage was done. A lot of these kids have a camera pointed at them and they just strike a pose never dreaming that it's going to end up on the Internet with the word slut next to it."
Williams says there is only so much that school administrators can do because "a lot of things have to happen on a parental level before they come to school."
"They are lacking attention from somewhere and they are doing outlandish things to get that attention," said Williams.
Parent and SCC member Tricia Malloy says that she asked her son why he and all his friends felt the need to have a Myspace profile.
"He said that they don't have a social life and this is their outlet to tell jokes, and that this is a way to get out to more people," said Malloy.
SINCE MOST Internet usage and cyber bullying take place after school hours, it makes it difficult for teachers to have any real control over students.
"If it's happening outside of the school, what can you do?" asked Culp.
Kerry Kirk says that The Potomac School attempts to get as actively involved as it can by phoning parents when teachers become aware of inappropriate after-school activity. However, teachers in public schools are in a more difficult situation as they are dealing with larger numbers of students and stricter rules regarding school authority.
"The bottom line that we have to face is that teachers are becoming more like parents," said Kirk.
Pam Margolis, head of the English department at Longfellow, suggested that there be more programs geared toward keeping parents informed about what is really going on with their children. However, Kirk said she suspected that such programs might not be well attended, simply because the parents are so busy.
"The ones that do come are the ones that don't need to because they are already involved in their children's lives and know what's' going on," said Kirk. "Things have to change from the top down. We have to focus on the whole child at school."
While other teachers agreed that this was a good concept, many felt that it could only have so much of an effect, particularly on high school students.
"It's hard for me to look at a 15-year-old and try to correct 15 years of never being told no and never having any boundaries set," said Williams.
Several teachers also commented on the high pressure of turning out students who are high achievers and who perform well on standardized tests. The result of this pressure is that any activities that cut into regular class time, regardless of whether or not they are positive learning experiences, tend to be met with opposition by school administrators and parents.
"As administrators we are asked more and more to be parents and make sure that kids get straight A's," said Wojciechowski.
Despite this, the faculty at last week's forum seemed to favor a Middle School Forum for eighth grade students.
"They have a lot of questions on their mind as they are getting ready to go into high school," said Culp. "We don't do enough to prepare them."