Thursday, December 19, 2013

2013 Community Youth Worker Annual Report Released

(Below is an excerpt from this year's Community Youth Worker annual report. For the entire report via PDF, email


When Floyd Faulkner came onboard to pilot the newly-created position of Community Youth Worker, there were high hopes amongst all interested in our community’s youth that this would prove to be successful in engaging more community youth in positive behaviors. Now in its fifth year, the program has proved to be highly successful, in no small part due to Floyd himself, as well as the commitment of organizations and individuals throughout the community who support the position. Most significantly, Quaker Valley School District has incorporated this position as a part of the district’s administrative staff, insuring that this valuable program continues.

The Community Youth Worker (CYW) is focused on the mission to give our young people the best chance to enjoy teen years while avoiding risky behavior. The primary approach is based upon the theory of the 40 Developmental Assets. Very simply: Our CYW Floyd Faulkner, as a caring adult, ensures that our children are strengthened with increased access to resources during their most vulnerable years. The message to the youth of our community is clear: We care about you, and want to help you find what you need to be successful. Working in close partnership with Youth Connect, the CYW helps to identify how to best supply these resources.

Although the CYW is primarily focused on middle schoolers, Floyd continues to work with children from pre-K through post-grad and their families. The following report highlights some of the key accomplishments for 2012-2013.

Our Community Youth Worker
Relationships with the Youths
The 8th grade students Floyd first met during the pilot year are now getting ready to graduate. It is rewarding to see how students have matured over the years, many achieving at unexpected levels.  This year has included writing letters of recommendations for college and jobs, as these students move on from school.
While it is difficult to put into numbers the impact of the Floyd’s work, the day to day effects are clear. For example, now when teachers or administration see signs of problems with a student, they bring Floyd in. Typically, he knows the student, has a relationship with the student, and is able to provide valuable input into the situation. Issues quickly diffuse rather than turn into greater disciplinary or academic problems.

Relationships with the Families
The families are also a key part of this. No work with youth can truly be successful without involvement of the family. As CYW, Floyd often reaches out to parents of students – not just to address negative behaviors, but because he also often identifies positive behaviors that would benefit from providing further opportunities for the youth. Families value this level of interest and support for their children.
It works in the other direction, as well. Because Floyd is very visible in the community and has developed many positive relationships with adults, families trust him. It is not unusual for parents to first turn to him when they have concerns, or are just looking for some guidance regarding their children.

The Discretionary Fund
Funding from the Sewickley Presbyterian Church, Union Aid and others (noted in the box below) have created a discretionary fund for the CYW to use as needed to provide access to opportunities for youth in the community. Floyd identifies opportunities, both for individual youth, and for group activities, and is able to tap into the fund to make sure these opportunities can be taken.

2012-2013 Donors

The Grable Foundation
Penguin Bookshop
Union Aid
 Barbara Thaw
 Sewickley Presbyterian Church
Youth Connect

Life-Expanding Experiences
Fishing: With help from Who’s Your Brother, Floyd and Luke Wholey (of the Pittsburgh’s famed Wholey family, and proprietor of Wild Alaskan Grille in the Strip District) took 3 boys fishing – a new and fun experience for them. Afterwards, Luke took the group back to his restaurant, showed them how to filet and cook fish, and then treated all to a meal!

Thurgood:  Floyd took 9 students to see the play “Thurgood” at Pittsburgh Public Theatre. The students were impressed by all that they learned about Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Black Angels Over Tuskagee: Around the time of the Tuskagee Airmen celebration in Sewickley, a group of students and parents were treated to an evening in the city to see “Black Angels Over Tuskagee” via the CYW discretionary fund.

Robert Morris University tour:  Floyd worked with QVSD and RMU to arrange a college tour for 26 7th and  8th graders for the second year. The tour is intended to give students a better view of what college is like, as well as help them understand what they need to focus on in their upcoming high school years. The tour was once again very well received, with students already clamoring for this year’s tour.

Health and Wellness
Many students are interested in participating in sports, or working out at the Y, yet don’t have the financial ability to sign up. This year, Floyd has used the discretionary fund to sponsor several students in the Quaker Valley Wrestling Program, send five students to the Sewickley YMCA summer camp, provide support for approximately 30 student YMCA memberships, and pay for 4 Youth Basketball League memberships.  He also was able to connect one student with free tennis coaching.

The Sewickley Valley YMCA routinely offers fun excursions for students, usually with some small fee attached. Sometimes even this small fee, however, prevents a student from being able to participate. Over the past year, Floyd has been able to use discretionary funds to ensure that any student wanting to go on an excursion can do so.

 Through the discretionary fund, Floyd has continued to provide support for some students with excellent musical skills. One of his students being coached is on her way to auditions at prestigious conservatories, for admittance next school year.

Through his strong relationship with the staff of Laughlin Children’s Center, along with discretionary funds, Floyd provided referrals, as well as four sponsorships, for tutoring and counseling.

Middle School Engagement
One of the key roles of the CYW is to engage with middle-schoolers, during their most vulnerable years. It is therefore very important that Floyd spends a sizeable amount of time at the Quaker Valley Middle School, getting to know the students, and making sure they understand how he can help them.

This past spring, Floyd was a key part in planning “Transformation Day”, an event for all middle schoolers where the girls were treated to a presentation by Kiya Tomlin, and Jamal Woodson along with Floyd talked with the boys about expectations, their futures, and risky behaviors. This event was well-received by the students, and will be repeated again this coming spring.

Maintaining a consistent presence at the Quaker Valley Middle School is important to maintaining connection. In a new program this year, Floyd participates in “Period X”, where he routinely plays basketball and football with students.  This past spring, he once again was chaperone for the 6th grade class trip.
When the middle schoolers move on to 9th Grade,  Floyd continues to play a role. At 9th Grade Orientation, Floyd spoke to  the students about the new opportunities coming to them, risky behaviors, growing closer to parents instead of apart, relationship-building, and taking advantage of the support of high school staff. Having established relationships with the students in middle school, this speech is key part of their transition…”Mr. Floyd” reminding them of all that the good that they have in front of them.

Community Collaborations
Laughlin Children’s Center
Floyd has found that some parents who could most benefit from Laughlin Children’s Center resources are unaware of the valuable counseling, tutoring, and other services offered. When parents identify needs that might be served by LCC, Floyd ensures that they understand what is available to them. He also provides sponsorships through the discretionary fund, or arranges scholarships with LCC, as needed.

Sewickley Valley YMCA:  Floyd continues to attend the OASIS afterschool program, both helping to supervise along with Hank Ford, YMCA Youth Director, as well as continuing to develop relationships with middle-schoolers who attend.

Sewickley Public Library: Working with Teen Librarian Emily Fear, Floyd took a group of 11 middle school girls on a field trip to experience a women-run radio station. The goal was to expose the girls to fields that are historically male-dominated. The girls’ response to the event was so great that Floyd and Emily are now working on bringing a full girls’ leadership program (Blossom and Flourish) to the community this coming winter.

St. Stephens Church: Floyd presented to the St. Stephens Side-by-Side program, helping single mothers to understand his role and how he might help them and their children.

Sewickley Academy/Summerbridge: Each year Floyd recruits students from QVSD and the Cornell School District for the Summerbridge program hosted by Sewickley Academy. For the accepted students, it has been a life-changing experience. We now have a total of 11 kids in the program.  And particularly good news: The program has added a year, so students attend as rising 6th graders through rising 10th graders.

QVSD Parenting Series: As CYW, Floyd has played a key role in developing and supporting a series of workshops by Dr. Don Sheffield on the topic of parenting. In addition to recruiting parents to attend, he joins the families for dinner then entertains the children while their parents spend time learning with Dr. Sheffield.
QVMS Afterschool programs: On days not at the OASIS, Floyd is with the students at Jeff Evanko’s Art Program, or Bruce Wolovich’s  Service

Quaker Valley Wrestling: As part of the founding team, Floyd is heavily involved in the new QV Wrestling Team, now in year two. The past year, the team grew to 45 students ages 5 – 12. Floyd has been able to provide scholarships to students that allow them to participate. And, most importantly, he coaches!

Thank You to the Organizations Who Partner with our Community Youth Worker
Through Youth Connect, a large number of organizations are now collaborating with our Community Youth Worker. We are especially grateful to Laughlin Children’s Center for providing office space and support.

Child Health Assn of Sewickley
Sewickley Academy
Cornell School District                         
Sewickley Community Center
Fern Hollow Nature Center
Sewickley Presbyterian Church
Friends of Quaker Valley Schools
Sewickley Public Library
Laughlin Children’s Center
Sewickley Valley YMCA
Magistrate Bob Ford
Sweetwater Center for the Arts
Quaker Valley School District
Union Aid
St. Stephens Church
Youth Connect
Samaritan Counseling Center

Above and Beyond
In addition to his role as CYW, Floyd has become increasingly involved in supporting the community. He is now serving as a board director for both the Sewickley Valley YMCA and Friends of Quaker Valley Schools Education Foundation, as well as coach of the Quaker Valley Wrestling Association. He also regularly supports requests to speak in the Sewickley area to various groups and organizations.

Plans for the Future
As CYW, Floyd is continually looking for new opportunities to support our youth. This coming spring, he is planning to form a Boys-To-Men group for Period X, along with QV Counselor Matt Parrish. He is also working on an “Importance of Fathers” event for the community, via Youth Connect.

Youth Worker Advisory Board
While the CYW position is a QVSD position, it is supported in many ways by the community. Oversight for the position is provided by the YWAC, which includes Child Health Association of Sewickley; Laughlin Children’s Center; The Presbyterian Church, Sewickley; Quaker Valley School District, Sewickley Valley YMCA, and Youth Connect. The group meets the Youth Worker each month to learn of his recent activities, and identify opportunities to provide support for efforts.

This past year, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association put together a video of “heroes” from across the state, and Floyd was specifically highlighted for his afterschool efforts. He is certainly our Everyday Hero!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

From the New York Times: Increasing Marijuana Use in High School Is Reported

The percentage of American high school students who smoke marijuana is slowly rising.
A new federal report shows that the percentage of American high school students who smoke marijuana is slowly rising, while the use of alcohol and almost every other drug is falling.
The report raises concerns that the relaxation of restrictions on marijuana, which can now be sold legally in 20 states and the District of Columbia, has been influencing use of the drug among teenagers. Health officials are concerned by the steady increase and point to what they say is a growing body of evidence that adolescent brains, which are still developing, are susceptible to subtle changes caused by marijuana.
“The acceptance of medical marijuana in multiple states leads to the sense that if it’s used for medicinal purposes, then it can’t be harmful,” said Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which issued the report. “This survey has shown very consistently that the greater the number of kids that perceive marijuana as risky, the less that smoke it.” Starting early next year, recreational marijuana use will also be legal in Colorado and Washington.
Experts debate the extent to which heavy marijuana use may cause lasting detriment to the brain. But Dr. Volkow said that one way marijuana might affect cognitive function in adolescents was by disrupting the normal development of white matter through which cells in the brain communicate.
According to the latest federal figures, which were part of an annual survey, Monitoring the Future, more than 12 percent of eighth graders and 36 percent of seniors at public and private schools around the country said they had smoked marijuana in the past year. About 60 percent of high school seniors said they did not view regular marijuana use as harmful, up from about 55 percent last year.
The report looked at a wide variety of drugs and substances. It found, for example, that drinking was steadily declining, with roughly 40 percent of high school seniors reporting having used alcohol in the past month, down from a peak of 53 percent in 1997. Abuse of the prescription painkiller Vicodin is half what it was a decade ago among seniors; cocaine and heroin use are at historic lows in almost every grade.
Cigarette smoking has also fallen precipitously in recent years. For the first time since the survey began, the percentage of students who smoked a cigarette in the past month dropped below 10 percent. Roughly 8.5 percent of seniors smoke cigarettes on a daily basis, compared with 6.5 percent who smoke marijuana daily, a slight increase from 2010.
Studies show that the concentration of THC in marijuana, its psychoactive ingredient, has tripled since the early 1990s, and Dr. Volkow said there was concern that the rising use and increased potency could affect the likelihood of car accidents and could lower school performance.
“What is most worrisome is that we’re seeing high levels of everyday use of marijuana among teenagers,” Dr. Volkow said. “That is the type that’s most likely to have negative effects on brain function and performance.”
new study published this week by scientists at Northwestern University, which showed what appeared to be lasting brain alterations in people who smoked marijuana as adolescents, has become part of the debate. Using brain imaging scans, the scientists showed that in comparison with young adults who had never smoked marijuana, those who used it daily for about three years as teenagers had differences in structures like the thalamus, globus pallidus and striatum.
These regions of the brain may help form a sort of mental notepad, called working memory, that allows people to solve puzzles, remember a telephone number or quickly process other bits of information needed for everyday tasks. Working memory is also a strong predictor of academic achievement in adolescents, said Matthew J. Smith, an author of the study and an assistant research professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
The study could not determine whether the structural abnormalities were present before the subjects began smoking marijuana. But it did show that the younger the students were when they started, the greater the alterations. And the extent of those abnormalities was directly linked to how poorly the subjects did on memory tests.
One expert who was not involved in the study, Dr. Sanjiv Kumra, the director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, said it was likely that more teenagers would misuse marijuana in the coming years. And that is concerning because adolescence is “a particularly susceptible period of ongoing brain development,” he said.
“There is this idea that cannabis is a harmless drug,” he added, “and these findings question that.”
A version of this article appears in print on 12/18/2013, on page A20 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Increasing Marijuana Use In High School Is Reported.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Parents Offer Best Advice to Steer Clear of Teenage Drinking

This past week’s topic for New Parent/Old Parent was teenage drinking and how to deal with it as a parent (and there were comments). The first thing that struck me was that in all my time moderating reader comments, I can’t remember so many as lengthy and nuanced — an indication, I think, on how complex and difficult the issue is and how much it can vary from child to child and from family to family. I was also touched by how many of the responses conveyed a sense of parental humility. I have worked hard to be a very good parent, but boy, did I fail on this front … a lot.

I was also pleased that many parents wrote about having absolutely zero tolerance for even having one drink, then driving. That’s an area in which we’ve made tremendous progress in my boomer lifetime. We were unequivocal with our children: Call us; call another parent; take a taxi; stay where you are. And as they got older: pick a designated driver. In my experience, there were some drug and alcohol educational programs aimed at teenagers that proved to be ineffective. But I think we owe a huge thank you as a society to what groups like M.A.D.D. and S.A.D.D. have accomplished through the years, in changing attitudes and in reducing drunken-driving deaths. Forty-five years ago, one of my friends was killed while driving drunk. He was 16. It was a terrible, unforgettable loss.
Anyway, to our readers. Many, like Alessandra in Bergamo, Italy, promoted the European approach of letting teenagers drink at family dinners, starting at their freshman year in high school, as a way of teaching moderation and demystifying alcohol:

“At this point, alcohol is fun but that excitement you had the first times you tried it is usually well over. This way you have less people driving around drunk. To me, this system makes much more sense than the American one.”

But anon from Brooklyn disagreed, writing that the European drinking culture is not all it’s cracked up to be and every bit as problematic as things in the United States:

“As to why such a preponderance of commenters report having no trouble with alcohol after having ‘learned to drink’ at an early age (i.e., the ‘European model’), my guess is that those who were not so lucky don’t tend to want to talk about it, or even admit it to themselves, given alcohol’s well-known ability to foster shame and denial in the abuser.”

David Shef, who has written a best-selling book on the horrors of dealing with his son’s chemical abuse, preaches doing anything in your power to push back the age of that first drink:

“More faulty logic comes from parents who say things along the lines of: ‘I’d rather have them get used to drinking now, so they learn moderation. Otherwise, when they go off to college they’ll go wild.’”

“This ignores the research that has demonstrated that postponing use is safer. In addition, there’s no evidence that kids who drink and use as teenagers will drink less when they’re older. In fact, the opposite is true: Almost every adult who has a drug problem started using as a teenager.”

You need to know how to read your teenager — they’re all different, wrote Benton from Louisville:
“… unless you take the time to get to know your child and build a trusting relationship, you will never be able to connect and build a strategy for your child. Understand their habits and their maturity level and implement a strategy accordingly. If you have a mature kid, reason with them and trust, don’t be an inelastic old school parent.”

JenRS from Newton, Mass., described an approach that was similar to mine: Accept that they will drink, pound moderation into their heads, ground them when they break the rules. Super strictness will not work, she said, and this may be the hardest challenge you’ll have as a parent:

“I definitely agree that the parents that are super strict simply have no idea where their kids are and what they are doing. It is a very, very hard issue, and I agree the very hardest I have had to face as a parent, but I think you need to think of the endgame: developing your children into mature, thoughtful, independent adults.”

Ryder s.ziebarth recommended watching out for fake ID’s, and wrote that giving your children a religious upbringing makes a difference:

“Impart this nugget: A ‘fake’ ID carries a fourth-degree felony charge in the state of New Jersey — 18 months in jail, one year probation, a $5,000 lawyer fee to try to get your child into a ‘First Offenders’ program (provided it is the first offense), which will expunge their record. If the charge is brought to a misdemeanor, it’s on the record for two years — no summer job, no grad school, no transferring.”

I give Mimi from Scarsdale credit for being honest. Her suggestion? Bribe them into sobriety:
“My own parents (35 years ago) bribed us to stay away from alcohol and drugs. They promised us an attractive sum of money at high school graduation if we abstained. It gave me an out when I went to parties where their was drinking.”

Many readers, like Post Motherhood, wrote that alcoholism in the family creates special problems:
“As they entered adolescence, I confronted their father on his excessive drinking — successfully ultimately, but not after much trauma-drama in the family. I have talked with our children starting at that time about the generations of excessive alcohol intake — and alcohol anxieties — plaguing their paternal family history.”

NE from New York asked how you verify whether they’re drinking or not:
“My daughter hosted a party at our apartment. Our policy was no alcohol and no one appeared to be drunk. However, we later discovered that the kids were hiding liquor bottles in cabinets and mixing vodka surreptitiously with soda. We couldn’t possibly monitor what every kid was doing. The only way we could have ensured there was no alcohol would have been to thoroughly search every corner of our apartment just beforehand to preclude any smuggling ahead of time, and then frisk every guest upon arrival. Breaking up the party did not accomplish much, either, since apparently most of the kids just headed to another party across town. I’ve also been told that kids drink in the street before they get to the party. “

And we got a view from inside an ambulance from Alison of Irvington, N.J., who offered some advice:

“As a volunteer in our local ambulance corps who has had to transport unconscious drunk teenagers many times, I would like to make a distinction between supervised alcohol consumption by your own child and purchasing alcohol for a bunch of kids.”

Having them call for a ride is well and good, Nicole of Boston wrote, but what do you do once you have them in the car?

“My question to parents out there who did the whole ‘call me and I will pick you up and I won’t lecture you’ bit is how that actually worked out when they did call you for a ride? Did it happen just the once, and they were so embarrassed that they never went to another party? Did they call you every other weekend to pick them up some place? If it did happen a few or more times, did you have to re-evaluate your approach in light of the fact that maybe your kid was having problems?”
Here’s what a retired state police officer, Pablo from Oregon, told his children:

“If you consume any alcohol or any recreational drug outside our home, call me and I will come and pick you up. Anywhere, any time. No questions, no trouble, no lectures.”

Several, including BratBusters from Vancouver, wrote that the core problem wasn’t drinking — it was low self-esteem:

“I deal with wayward teenagers on a regular basis and parents are always shocked that I never discuss their behavior with them … never. I discuss their self-image/self-esteem. That’s the basis of everything. Although I’m sure my son would say his fear of ‘Mom’s disappointing stare’ was enough to keep him in line. He was terrified of my stare, evidently, he told me that when he grew up. That stare was his mirror into himself, his own self-esteem reminder. The ‘You know you’re too good for this, kiddo, smarten up’ stare.”

Maybe. But I can tell you my four were brimming over with healthy self-esteem, and unhealthy drinking was still a problem in our house. When they were still teenagers and they did something stupid, often I was the one called in to talk to the principal or a teacher, and at those moments, when I felt I had failed as a parent, it was my self-esteem that suffered.

The New York Times
By Michael Winerip, October 11, 2013

Death by the Choking Game

It was the kind of day you’d never remember if it hadn’t ended the way it did. A mother with her two sons, 13 and 11, on a Monday in August. Shopping for school supplies and clothes at Target and Abercrombie. Lunch at Subway. Grocery shopping at Whole Foods. The mom helping the younger kid with his summer Spanish homework in the family room; the older kid upstairs in his room.
After a while, Alex came downstairs and leaned over Susan and Zach to see what they were working on. “I was doing homework, too,” Alex said. Then he called out the answer to the question Zach had been working on. “Hey, don’t give him the answers,” Susan said and poked Alex in the ribs with a Nerf sword, pretending to stab him. Alex laughed. As Alex was walking out of the room, Zach asked him to set up a board game, Settlers of the Stone Age, so they could play it that night. “Sure, I’ll do it later,” Alex said and left. That was the last time Susan and Zach saw Alex alive.
Zach finished his homework about 10 minutes later, and Susan told him that he could play on the computer before dinner. Zach ran to the foot of the stairs and called up to Alex. No answer. Zach yelled again, “Alex, Mom’s giving us screen time,” and started to walk upstairs. Later, Susan would wonder if things might have turned out differently if she hadn’t stopped Zach, thinking that Alex — a teenager about to start high school in a few weeks, after all — might want some privacy. She would ask the ER doctor who tried to revive Alex if he could have been saved if they’d found him then. And although the doctor would assure her that no, death came quick, no more than a few minutes after they saw him last, she won’t be able to stop thinking of that moment, of Zach agreeing to leave his brother alone for now. “But I’m gonna wait for Alex for screen time because it’s not as much fun by myself,” Zach said and went back to the family room.
Some time went by — 20 minutes, maybe 30 — and Susan started thinking that it was funny they hadn’t heard anything from Alex. Dinner would be soon, so she went upstairs. His door was open, the room empty. She knocked on the bathroom door and went in. Nothing.
She checked the other bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs. She went up to the attic, checked the guest room. She went back downstairs and opened the basement door and called his name. No answer. She went outside, yelling his name now, running through the backyard, the pool area, the garage, the driveway, the front yard. Her heart thudded against her chest, her neck, her temples, her hands growing cold, but she told herself that she was being silly to worry, that he was a big boy, not a toddler. She imagined Alex laughing at her paranoia.
She went back in the house and called his cell phone. It went to voicemail. Zach said to text him; Alex always checks his texts. She typed in “Where r u.” No response.
Susan remembered that she hadn’t actually checked the basement. She walked down the spiral staircase, scanning the room. Drumset. Ping-pong table. Treadmill. All empty.
It wasn’t until she reached the bottom that she saw it: Alex’s body, hanging, something green around his neck, his toes brushing the ground. “Stop it, you’re freaking me out,” she said and slapped him on the shoulder, thinking, hoping, praying that he must be faking it.
Of the next moments, she remembers only bits and pieces. Screaming “Oh my God” repeatedly, yelling for Zach to call 911. Trying to get Alex’s body down, trying to lift him up to give him slack, but his body being too heavy. Running up the steps and trying to get the string — an old dog leash, a green one she didn’t even remember having in the house — off the railing. Hearing Zach say, “I don’t know what the emergency is. My mom told me to call,” grabbing the phone and saying that her son hanged himself. Cutting the leash with scissors, Alex’s body crumpling down, the leash around his neck falling away easily. Following the instructions from the 911 operator to give CPR, flinching at the touch of Alex’s body. The police coming, taking over CPR from her, relief flooding her that finally, someone who could save him was here. The EMTs using the defibrillator, her having to go upstairs, unable to watch them shock her son’s body over and over again.
She found Zach outside, sitting on the steps. He said, “Is Alex dead?” and she told him that there was hope, that all these people wouldn’t be doing so much for so long if there weren’t. Her husband Jim called to say that he was getting on the train to come home. She said — no longer hysterical, weirdly calm now, thinking maybe this was some elaborate hoax, trying to figure out how Alex managed to get the police and the doctors in on it — that something had happened to Alex. Jim asked if he was alive. She said, “I don’t know.”
When the ER doctor told her that Alex was dead, Susan asked if Alex would have known that he was dying. The doctor looked confused. “It was an intentional act,” he said. It occurred to her then: The doctor thought Alex committed suicide. Everyone did. The police had searched the whole house, his computer and phone, looking unsuccessfully for a suicide note, for some clue as to why a seemingly happy 13-year-old kid would kill himself.
Later, after Jim met Susan at the hospital and they saw their son’s body for the last time, after they picked up Zach from the neighbors and told him that his brother was gone, after they walked into their house, now a family of three, Susan sat up in Alex’s room, trying to comprehend what had happened, why he would want to end his own life. Alex had just come home from summer camp; the day before, he’d excitedly shown them pictures of his roommate and friends, challenged them to play the computer game he’d programmed. He’d been looking forward to starting high school. There, on his desk, neatly laid out, were the school supplies they’d bought that day, next to the new brown desk lamp he’d picked out. All the new clothes they’d bought that day, neatly folded and put away in his drawers, the tags in the trash can. The novel he was reading, “A Dance With Dragons,” on his bed, bookmark in the middle. He was a voracious reader; he’d stayed up until 1:30 the night before to find out what happens next in this book, the latest in the “Game of Thrones” series he’d been reading all summer — wouldn’t he have wanted to find out how it ends before killing himself? And on the desk, the grammar packet he’d done that afternoon on his own, without being told. Why would he have done homework a half-hour before committing suicide? None of it made sense.
In his bathroom were more puzzles. On the counter, the police had laid out something they’d found: a ligature, like a too-long shoelace, with a small loop knot at one end and a complicated slip knot on the other. Susan and Jim opened Alex’s bathroom drawer and found more strings and two pieces of yarn, one green and one yellow, some with knots. Susan remembered seeing the yarn earlier that year in the bathroom, wondering what it was and why it was there but not thinking much of it. They searched through the house and found more of these ligatures hidden away—the strings from a cat’s cradle kit hidden away in his closet, one of Susan’s soft headbands with slip knots at both ends stuffed in a box in the powder room cabinet on the main floor. What were they, and why were they everywhere?
The police explained the next day. Kids sometimes asphyxiate themselves for “recreational purposes,” they said. Based on the evidence they found, they were reclassifying Alex’s death as an accidental death, not as a suicide.
Susan and Jim had never heard of this, and they immediately researched it online. They found out that it’s called the Choking Game, an activity popular among 9- to 16-year-old kids in which they strangle themselves or each other — sometimes at parties or sleepovers — to get a high. The most common reported age of death is 13, Alex’s age. Many kids like Alex — smart kids who do well in school and have loving families — regard the Choking Game as a legal and safe alternative to drugs; one popular nickname for this is the Good Kids’ High. What these kids don’t realize is that this “game” is inherently dangerous and can be addictive, making it all the more likely that they — like Alex — will attempt this on their own, experimenting with using a rope or belt as a makeshift noose.
The thing that didn’t make sense to Susan and Jim was how Alex could have hanged himself, knowing how easy it would be for him to pass out before he had a chance to release. Alex was a brilliant kid; he skipped a grade. A Science Olympian, he loved tinkering with all types of electronic and mechanical things to modify their design and function. Surely, he would have known that if you hang yourself and fall unconscious while you’re alone, chances were good that you would die.
What they discovered was that Alex had taken precautions. He had put one end of a dog leash through the handle to make a loop on one end, which he put around his neck. He looped the leash around a vertical rail on the staircase, using the rail like an overhead pulley. When he pulled down on one end (the end with the clip for the dog collar), the loop around his neck would tighten. If he passed out, his grip would automatically release, the leash would come undone from around the rail, the loop around his neck would loosen and fall away, and he would simply fall onto the padded mat around him. Alex had apparently done this many times before, successfully; Jim found another dog leash in the basement, a thick pink one, worn away and ragged in the middle where it would have grated against the rail. The problem was that there was a thin gap between the rail and the wooden step. The green leash, unlike the pink one, was thin enough that it could get pulled into this gap, like floss between teeth. When Alex released, the leash could get through the gap, but the buckle clip at the end couldn’t. The clip became jammed between the rail and the step, making it impossible for the leash to loosen and release him as he would have expected it to.
The thing that haunts Susan now is realizing that if she had known about the Choking Game, she might have realized Alex was in danger. The warning signs of the Choking Game include bloodshot eyes; frequent headaches; marks on the neck; ropes, scarves, and belts found knotted in kids’ rooms and bathrooms and the unexplained presence of things like dog leashes, choke collars and bungee cords. Susan had noticed some these things in the six months or so prior to his death, but not knowing about the Choking Game, had dismissed them. Alex had headaches and a bloodshot eye, but what kid doesn’t? And during the summer, he’d had many broken blood vessels under the skin on his face, but wasn’t that just a side effect of acne? And she’d asked about the marks on the neck — a two-inch thin mark around his neck back in the spring and a scab mark earlier in the summer — but when Alex shrugged them off, she figured they must be byproducts of her sons’ frequent roughhousing. Taken individually, each of these signs seemed innocuous, but taken together, if she’d heard of this game before, even in passing, she might have figured it out. She would have confronted him. Educated him of the dangers. Become one of those helicopter moms we all make fun of. Whatever it took to get him to stop.
Susan and Jim don’t know how or when Alex got started. He could have learned about it from friends; several of his middle school classmates have said they knew about it and had heard kids talking about it at school, although none has admitted to having tried it. Or he could have come across one of the hundreds of YouTube videos of preteens and teenagers playing this “game,” choking each other and laughing as their friends pass out and fall to the ground, their arms and legs twitching in a seizure. They’re easy to find, under knock out, passing out game, space monkey, California high, funky chicken, airplaining or even choke out or choke hold, search phrases kids interested in wrestling might use. If Alex had seen one of these videos, he might have been lured by the message they carry: This is easy, fun and safe. No big deal, totally legal, takes less than a minute, and you get a great high for free. Just a game.
It’s been two months since Alex died. Zach has started middle school, and when new friends ask him if he has any brothers or sisters, he doesn’t know how to answer. Susan can’t do laundry because she can’t go down to the basement, can’t even look at a spiral staircase in someone else’s house. They’re looking for a new house — something smaller, with more kids on the neighborhood streets for Zach to play with. Susan worries about finding the right balance with Zach — if he’s out of eyesight, she panics about where he is, what he could be doing, but she also worries that she might end up smothering him if she doesn’t give him independence.

It’s hard for her to talk about this, to email and write Facebook posts to raise awareness over the Choking Game, to urge her friends to look up a Choking Game video and report it as dangerous and get it taken down. But she does, hoping that maybe she’ll reach one parent or teacher who’ll see the warning signs before it’s too late, that maybe she’ll reach a first-responder who won’t immediately jump to the conclusion of suicide next time, that maybe someone will tell her story to their kids or neighbors, that maybe she’ll be able to prevent the agony that she and Jim felt in thinking, even for a moment, that their child was secretly in so much anguish that he’d taken his own life.

In recent weeks, Susan has gotten to know a woman who also lost her son to the Choking Game. She has a strand of beads and adds one every time someone contacts her to report a Choking Game death or a death is added to the Choking Game victims list. Each bead has a Choking Game victim’s name and age; the youngest victim is a 6-year old boy who watched his brother playing it and tried it by himself in his own room. Since January 2006, when this woman’s son died, the strand of beads has grown to 645 beads, more than 23 feet in length. She doesn’t need to add any more.

By Angie Kim October 12, 2013

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Free Parent Workshops Offered by the Quaker Valley School District

Beginning on Wednesday, October 16, the Quaker Valley School District will be hosting a series of free parent workshops. The program will run from 6:30-8 p.m. in the Quaker Valley Middle School. For those interested in dining beforehand, a free dinner will be available from 5:30-6:30 in the cafeteria and childcare will be offered in the gymnasium during the parent program.

This first workshop in the series is entitled, “Parenting Re-Imagined: Excellence Begins at Home!”, and will be facilitated by Dr. Don Sheffield, an author and educator. Through the workshop, Dr. Sheffield intends to shed light on strategies for improving academic success, assisting parents in understanding successful behaviors,  and helping them to enhance parent-child interactions for optimal academic and personal development.

Dr. Sheffield is passionate about helping parents manage the academic development of their children. He received his bachelor’s degree in secondary education from Geneva College, his master’s in education from Slippery Rock University and his doctorate in higher education from Penn State University. Prior to retirement in 2002, Dr. Sheffield spent 26 years in higher education at Pennsylvania State University. Now he serves as an adjunct professor for the Penn State Beaver campus.

To attend the program, you can RSVP online by clicking here or by contacting Stefanie McKissic at 412-749-3616 or

Following workshops on similar topics will be held on Wednesday, January 29 and Wednesday, March 26.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

300 Teens Throw Party at Ex-NFL Player's Home

              This past Labor Day weekend in Stephentown, NY, over 300 teens broke into the vacation home of former NFL player, Brian Holloway. While at home in his permanent residence in Florida, Holloway watched the event unfold online as hundreds of teens gathered at his residence to throw a party before police were able to intervene. Throughout the night these teenagers, under the influence of alcohol and various drugs, smashed windows, urinated on floors, punched holes in walls and ceilings, spray painted walls, and even stole the headstone of Holloway’s grandson who died at birth. All in all there were over $20,000 worth of damage.

An event like this certainly calls for action. Action on the part of the parents, police, teenagers involved and Brian Holloway. Most people under similar circumstances as Holloway would likely be moved to press charges, however that is not the position Holloway has taken. Instead, he created a website, The site includes photos posted during and after the party on various social media venues by the teens themselves in an effort to help police identify the participants. Holloway’s intention has never been to simply ID the participants in order to punish them, but “to turn this moment into a movement” by giving the 300 an opportunity to reconcile and assuage their actions by turning them into ambassadors to reach out to others with the message of “accountability and reconciliation…[and] save lives”. This calls for repentance on the part of the teens, and unfortunately that is not a position many have taken.
In a shocking twist to this story, not only did these teens boast of their actions on Twitter, Instagram, etc., their parents actually came to their defense. While Holloway could have easily demanded that identified kids be taken under arrest, ultimately generating criminal records, he merely tried to turn the event into a learning experience to generate a higher level or moral character and accountability. Parents of these teens, however, are now threatening violence and lawsuits. Parents are angry that Holloway identifyed their children online based on the argument that he is undermining their opportunity to get into college, despite the fact that their own children were initially responsible for posting pictures and messages from the party.
What’s more is that Holloway had been planning a party for active and retired military personnel and their families at his NY property. In an attempt to prepare his home and allow the teens an opportunity to right their wrongs, he invited the 300 to come clean and repair damages. Of the hundreds, only one came to help.
Here is a case of outrageous behavior, where rather than encouraging the participants to learn from their mistakes, their actions were defended. Here we see a case of harassing the victim rather than encouraging the aggressors to take responsibility for their actions. It is important to learn from this event. As individuals, families and communities we frequently make mistakes and must decide how we face them. Do we shirk responsibility or do we hold each other responsible in a way that encourages growth and learning?
This story has certainly generated quite a bit of discussion over the past several weeks. What are your thoughts?

(Excerpted in part from NPR, September 20, 2013 & WGY, September 20, 2013)

Friday, September 20, 2013

Summerbridge High School Mentor Opportunity

             Since 1993, Sewickley Academy has been home to Summerbridge Pittsburgh, which serves students from low-income families by helping them realize their academic potential. Summerbridge plays a critical role in allowing these students to achieve their academic goals as they move through high school and towards their college years by providing them with support, connections and resources where similar opportunities would not otherwise be available.
Summerbridnge is not only an excellent opportunity for the students it assists, but also for high school and college students interested in pursuing careers in education and youth-services through job and volunteer opportunities. This year, Summerbridge is expanding its services through a high school mentoring program with the intention of generating more significant face time and interactions with their students throughout the school year. High School Mentors have the opportunity to be positive role models, advisers, sounding boards, and advocates for these student.
Mentors are assigned to mentor Summerbridge high school students at a designated Pittsburgh high school. Mentors will visit this high school once a month, during school hours in the school year (September – May), meeting individually with each of their students (approximately 10–15 students per high school). In these individual meetings, mentors will check students’ academic progress, collect report cards, advise on academic enrichment activities and the college search process, and provide other additional support per the request of the Summerbridge High School Program Director. Throughout the month, mentors will also conduct follow-up phone calls or emails with students and their families as needed. Approximate time commitment: 5–10 hours per month.
Mentors must also commit to one half-day training in September with Summerbridge staff members as well as monthly phone calls or meetings with the Summerbridge High School Program Director.

Requirements: Applicant must submit an application, Act 33/34 and FBI clearances, as well as an interview with Summerbridge staff.

If you are interested in applying to be a high school mentor, please visit:

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A grieving father's words of warning for the young

BY KEVIN CASTLE | BRISTOL HERALD COURIER | | 276-645-2531 | Twitter: @BHCCastle | Updated 1 week

ABINGDON, Va. — Robert Goldsmith is preparing to celebrate
the short life of his only daughter Shelly.

He wants to talk about her love of others, her family and
the goals she set for herself.

But he must also cope with the tragic news that her death
was a result of her taking that one chance, that misstep out of the ordinary.

Shelley Goldsmith’s collapse inside a Washington, D.C.,
nightspot was likely caused by her taking a popular drug used in rave clubs,
her father said Friday, and he wants to warn parents and teenagers by using her
life as an example.

“This was an upbeat, high-achieving, well-rounded, active
young person who made a bad decision and died because of it,” Goldsmith said.
“But I want people to know that this is not the legacy we want for Shelly. She
was too giving of a person.”

In talking with friends who accompanied Shelley to
Echostage, the largest dance venue in the D.C. area in the Ivy City suburb,
they revealed to Goldsmith and to police that Shelly took one dose of the drug
called Molly upon arriving at the club, he said.

Shelley Goldsmith, 19, who had just started her second year
as a Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, had
gone to the city to visit friends for the Labor Day weekend. She was pronounced
dead at a hospital shortly after collapsing at the club.

Molly is a form of the illegal substance known as ecstasy
that Dr. Melinda Campopiano, of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration, said comes in a powder or crystallized form that has added to
the interest in using it among the rave culture and in younger adults ages 18
to 30.

According to the Washington Post, authorities have launched
an investigation into whether Shelley received a lethal dose that may have come
from the same batch that was possibly distributed on the East Coast last
weekend and claimed the lives of two others, including another 19-year-old
female college student who died after taking the drug at the House of Blues in
Boston, Mass.

When taken, Campopiano says the drug provides an
overwhelming release of the same neurotransmitters in the brain that are
associated with addiction in general and with a person’s feeling of ecstasy
with the release of epinephrine, dopamine and serotonin.

The doctor also said that feelings of anxiety or depression
can also become apparent while the drug takes its toll on the body and those
symptoms can continue well after the high wears off.

“One dose will provide effects for three to six hours,” she

“People want to take this because of the feeling of
emotional warmth, closeness and energy and euphoric high it brings. Some
heighten it by chasing it with alcohol or marijuana. Even a moderate dose, a
single dose, can be toxic to the nerve cells of the brain and cause permanent
damage. It gives the person a sense of belonging in this mass of people dancing.

“People who take it a second time, the MDMA [chemical
contained in Molly] can build up in the blood. MDMA, once in your body,
interferes with your body’s ability to metabolize. There is no antidote for
clearing this drug out of your body. Some people get hyperthermia with a high
fever after taking it along with an abnormal heart rhythm, seizures, organ
failure and then death.”

Robert Goldsmith, president and CEO of People Inc. of
Southwest Virginia, told the Associated Press earlier this week that his
daughter had a “heart or pulmonary attack” prior to her death, although D.C.
police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said in a police report that toxicology
reports would determine the official cause of death.

“We thought about keeping this from the public and others,
but we decided that telling her story could help warn others,” he said.

“I am positive that she probably didn’t feel like she was
putting herself in jeopardy. She wouldn’t do that. She loved life. She made a
bad decision and it cost her her life. The general thinking among college-age
people right now is that [Molly] is safe because it makes you feel better. The
word needs to get out that it can kill you.

“I don’t know if Shelley had done this one time or several
times,” Goldsmith continued. “That’s not important now. The word needs to get
out that this drug is not safe and the more that young people hear that, the
better off they will be. I hope colleges and universities get involved and
educate students about this drug. I don’t hold the University of Virginia
responsible for this, but they do have a chance now to improve things. But I am
not the only parent right now preparing for a funeral because of this drug.
This needs to be stopped.”

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Parents: Something to Watch For

The New York Times

August 17, 2013

In All Flavors, Cigars Draw In Young Smokers

BALTIMORE — At Everest Greenish Grocery, a brightly lit store on a faded corner of this city, nothing is more popular than a chocolate-flavored little cigar. They are displayed just above the Hershey bars along with their colorful cigarillo cousins — white grape, strawberry, pineapple and Da Bomb Blueberry. And they were completely sold out by 9 one recent evening, snapped up by young people dropping by for a snack or stopping in during a night of bar hopping.
“Sorry, no more chocolate,” the night clerk, Qudrad Bari, apologetically told a young woman holding a fruit drink.
In 2009, Congress passed a landmark law intended to eliminate an important gateway to smoking for young people by banning virtually all the flavors in cigarettes that advocates said tempted them. Health experts predicted that the change would lead to deep reductions in youth smoking. But the law was silent on flavors in cigars and a number of other tobacco products, instead giving the Food and Drug Administration broad discretion to decide whether to regulate them.
Four years later, the agency has yet to assert that authority. And a rainbow of cheap flavored cigars and cigarillos, including some that look like cigarettes, line the shelves of convenience stores and gas stations, often right next to the candy. F.D.A. officials say they intend to regulate cigars and other tobacco products, but they do not say how or when. Smoking opponents contend that the agency’s delay is threatening recent progress in reducing smoking among young people.
Cigarette sales are down by a third over the past decade, according to federal data, but critics of the agency say the gains are being offset by the rise of cheaper alternatives like cigars, whose sales have doubledover the same period and whose flavored varieties are smoked overwhelmingly by young people. Loose tobacco and cigars expanded to 10 percent of all tobacco sold in the United States in 2011, up from just 3 percent in 2000, federal data show.
“The 20th century was the cigarette century, and we worked very hard to address that,” said Gregory N. Connolly, the director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Now the 21st century is about multiple tobacco products. They’re cheap. They’re flavored. And some of them you can use anywhere.”
The F.D.A. is now wrestling with how to exercise its authority over an array of other tobacco products. In recent weeks, for example, it sent warning letters to several companies that it says are disguising roll-your-own tobacco as pipe tobacco, a practice that industry analysts say has become a common way to avoid federal taxes and F.D.A. regulation.
“The giant has finally awoken and hopefully will do its job,” said Ron Bernstein, the chief executive of Liggett Vector Brands, a cigarette producer that is worried about unfair competition from cigar makers and others.
Mitchell Zeller, 55, a public interest lawyer who became the director of the F.D.A.’s Center for Tobacco Products this spring, acknowledged in an interview that the emergence of new tobacco products meant a new look was needed.
“What we’ve seen in the past 10 years is this remarkable transformation of the marketplace,” Mr. Zeller said. “There are products being sold today — unregulated products — that literally did not exist 10 years ago.”
But new rules have to be grounded in scientific evidence, he said, and written to withstand legal challenges. The tobacco industry won a recent court fight against graphic images on cigarette labels.
As for the criticism that the agency has been slow to act, Mr. Zeller said, “Message received.”
But the F.D.A.’s careful approach exasperates smoking opponents.
“We shouldn’t need 40 years of study to figure out that chocolate- and grape-flavored cigars are being smoked by young people,” said Matthew L. Myers, the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Traditional handmade cigars were seen as a luxury for older men, but much of the recent growth has been in products sold in convenience stores to low-income customers. Flavored cigars now represent more than half of all convenience store and gas station cigar sales, up nearly 40 percent since 2008, according to Nielsen market data analyzed by Cristine Delnevo, a tobacco researcher at Rutgers University.
A three-pack of Good Times flavored cigarillos at Everest costs 99 cents, an alluring price for the store’s clientele: young, poor African-Americans.
On a recent evening, Mr. Bari, a native of Pakistan, was in a generous mood. He had just broken his Ramadan fast with sweet tea and was helping a customer with the last 30 cents needed for a pack of Newports. But he said flavored cigars were actually more popular in his store than cigarettes. Sometimes people pay for them with spare change.
Jay Jackson, a 19-year-old nursing assistant in hospital scrubs, rarely has the $6.50 for a pack of cigarettes, which she also smokes, but can usually come up with a dollar for the kind of cigar she likes. Flavors improve the taste of cigars that are otherwise so harsh they make her light headed, she said, paying Mr. Bari for two — chocolate and cherry.
Mr. Bari said he remembered only strawberry, vanilla and chocolate when he first arrived 10 years ago. “Now look at this,” he said, motioning toward the cigar shelf disapprovingly. Some companies are producing small filtered cigars that look like cigarettes in brown wrappers, avoiding the federal taxes and F.D.A. regulation required for cigarettes. Mr. Bernstein, the cigarette producer, contended that such cigars made up much of the recent increase in cigar sales. A typical pack of 20 costs about $2, compared with about $6 for a pack of cigarettes.
Tobacco in cigars is cured by a different method than tobacco in cigarettes. And cigars come in a wrapper made of tobacco, while cigarettes are wrapped in paper. Smaller cigars popular among young people tend to be inhaled more, making the health risks similar to cigarettes.
Nationally, about one in six 18- to 24-year-olds smoke cigars, federal research shows, compared with only 2 percent of people over 65. More than half of the younger users smoke flavored cigars, with the highest rates among the poorest and least educated.
Those are familiar circumstances in certain parts of Baltimore, where life expectancy for men can be as low as 63 years, a level last seen for all American men in the 1940s. The smoking rate here is double the national one — a pattern that Devin Miles, a high school junior who started smoking cigarettes when he was 10, said was obvious at his school.
“Everybody smokes, even the teachers,” he said.
Cigar producers say they are bracing for F.D.A. action, even as sales have flattened in the last few years, dampened by new taxes. But they question a flavor ban, pointing out that the F.D.A. has yet to prohibit the most common flavor, menthol, in cigarettes and that chewing tobacco still comes in flavors.
“We continue to ask the question, ‘What’s the rationale?’ ” said Joe Augustus, a spokesman for Swisher International, a cigar producer. Flavors have existed “since the beginning of time,” he said, and are popular with “the guys who are cutting your lawn and fixing your car.”
There is also evidence that cigar purchases are related to marijuana use. In a survey of 5,000 middle and high school students in Massachusetts in 2003, researchers found that about a fifth were using cigar wrappers to smoke marijuana.
Mr. Bari, the night clerk, said many of his customers used the wrappers for marijuana. “It’s the younger generation,” he said. “Your sister’s crying, your daughter’s crying, you don’t care.”
One customer, Torri Stevens, a 19-year-old who said she worked at a strip club in Washington, said she sometimes smoked as many as 12 blunts a day, a name for marijuana in a cigar wrapper that is associated with Phillies Blunt, a cigar brand.
Black youths were the one group that registered a rise in cigar smoking nationally. Twelve percent of black high school students smoked cigars in 2011, compared with 7 percent in 2009, the C.D.C. said.
Maryland, where the legal age to buy cigarettes is 18, did its own survey and found that cigar smoking had increased across the entire high school population. It is now one of at least six states where cigar smoking among youths now equals or surpasses cigarette smoking, according to the C.D.C.
Alarmed officials started a public education campaign. A Web site,, shows an ice cream truck adorned with a giant lit cigar and children running after it.
On a recent night at Everest Greenish Grocery, Mr. Bari sold cigars to patrons of a nearby transvestite bar and people who were just leaving work.
Trayvon Henderson, 19, was still wearing his McDonald’s uniform when he stopped in for a chocolate cigarillo. Cigars are stylish, he said, and some of his favorite rappers smoke them.
“If they take away the flavor, it would be a problem,” he said, cigarillo in hand. “I’d probably stop smoking them. Or maybe I’d go back to cigarettes.”
Jessica Kourkounis contributed reporting.


Cultural Studies: Hollywood’s New Stars: Pedestrians