From YouthNet and Open Gym:
Recently at Columbia High School, over 70 students gathered for the first “Chat & Snack” forum to discuss their growing concerns over a wide range of issues.
Spearheaded by YouthNet — the nonprofit that runs the after school programs at CHS, South Orange Middle School and Maplewood Middle School — as well as Open Gym and the Municipal Alliances of South Orange and Maplewood, the forum was an outgrowth of a series of focus groups involving a cross-section of students from YouthNet’s Youth Advisory Board (YAB). In round-table discussions, the students explored addiction, mental health, student/police interaction, internal school communication, school climate and the environment. The Maplewood Police department joined the students along with CHS staff including Interim Principal Dr. Kalisha Morgan, two assistant principals, the guidance department and Student Assistance Counselor Dorota Martinez, who moderated. “It was a beautiful, powerful and an enlightening experience to hear the voice of today’s youth in a safe space,” said Sgt. Connie Fields who along with Retired Sgt. Michael Morrisson, Sgt. Da’Shawn Lawson and Officer Lewin lead Open Gym.
Robust discussions erupted around, but were not limited to, the warning signs of mental distress, coping with addicted loved ones, plastic waste in the environment and feelings around police interactions. Some students said they embraced these discussions as a call to action. A give away from the ADAPT (Alcohol and Drug Prevention Team) and a visit from Ruthie’s Food Truck, owned by South Orange resident Whitney Pillsbury, capped off the event.
“It is great when you not only have collaboration between three important community groups-YouthNet, the Police Department and school administrators — but more importantly have by-in from students,” said Assistant Principal Kevin Mason. YouthNet’s Executive Director Diane Malloy and Board Chair Camilla Finch Teitelman added, “The students opened up and we heard a lot of great ideas, so we are hoping to hold another forum in the fall.”