The number of local officials, police officers, school faculty and members of various youth-oriented organizations that showed up at the Huntington Community Center’s new Support on Suspension site last Wednesday, Oct. 3 illustrated the broad community interest the project has generated.
"Anybody doing the public’s work recognizes the value of a program like this," said Jeff McKay, to the crowd filling the classroom-sized space that houses the operation.
McKay is chief of staff to Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) and is now in the running to fill Kauffman’s position. He attended the event as a member of the Huntington Support on Suspension (SOS) Advisory Council. He noted that efforts to prevent young people from slipping into wayward lifestyles are "much more cost-effective and productive" than punishing preventable crimes later on.
The site, which is intended to provide a constructive environment for middle school and high school students while they are suspended, is the result of a partnership between Fairfax Partnership for Youth Inc., the county’s Department of Community and Recreation Services (CRS) and the Alternative House children’s refuge. It is the first such operation in the Mount Vernon area. There are two other SOS sites in the county, although others have been opened and subsequently shut down for lack of funding.
"These kids are already in trouble, which is why they’re suspended, but then, they’re being suspended to nothing, instead of something constructive," said Ken Disselkoen, who directs the county’s Department of Systems Management for Human Services. He noted that he had been part of the push for the site years ago, when he worked in the area as the Region 1 director of Human Services. The program, he said, "will really pay a huge dividend in our future."
"What else are they going to do, other than something we don’t want them to do and possibly get in trouble?" asked Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) of unsupervised suspended students. "They got in trouble, but this gives them a second chance, and they all deserve it," he said.
Dan Storck, the Mount Vernon District’s School Board representative, compared SOS to the after-school program that is now in its second year at county middle schools. "I’m looking at the police officers sitting in the back, and I know they know the difference those programs have made," he said, noting that both are designed to keep young people constructively occupied.
Storck said that, in disciplinary hearings, he had seen too many students who had fallen behind in their schoolwork while suspended. "They’ve gotten into a cycle that’s very hard to break," he said. He added that he hoped schools would make an effort to alert parents to this new service. "I’ve had need for programs like this myself for my kids," said Storck.
Nandred Navarro, outreach coordinator for Alternative House, noted that students attending the SOS program would be encouraged not only to complete their homework but also to participate in community service and life skills programs. About one month into the school year, Navarro said, "we already have almost a full house." The site can serve up to seven students at a time.
Kahan Dhillon, director of the Fairfax Partnership for Youth, said the program was intended not only as a prevention measure "but as a means to change the lives of these children." Dhillon said he was inspired to get involved in SOS in part by the fate of one of his former classmates at West Potomac High School. The student, an all-state running back who had been offered a number of football scholarships, "got into a situation he could not get himself out of" in his last six months of high school, said Dhillon, noting that his classmate now lives in a trailer in West Virginia.
McKay made a plea for all those in attendance at the grand opening to spread the word that the site is seeking adult volunteers to work as mentors.