Parents talk safety concerns with CVU principal (11/13/08)

Nov. 13, 2008

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

A fear of any parent is the dreaded midnight phone call that something has happened to a child.

With that fear in mind, parents of Champlain Valley Union High School students gathered earlier this week to discuss safety concerns and look for ways to deal with problems as a community.

With recent fatal car accidents in South Burlington, trouble with drug and alcohol abuse for some teens, and national issues regarding the economy and war, now is the time to talk to children to make sure they’re OK and stress is reduced in their lives, CVU Principal Sean McMannon said.

“It is time to kind of wave the flag, so to speak,” McMannon told parents on Tuesday night. “I’m confident you’re going to go home and talk to your kids, but I’m wondering how all of us connect with our community.”

Between 50 and 60 parents gathered at CVU for “Dessert with the Principal” on Tuesday. Sponsored by the Friends of CVU, the event took on a different form from past “Dessert” meetings, which typically feature mingling over snacks. McMannon asked parents to form small groups and discuss key questions about student safety and how the high school community can better respond to safety issues.

Parents shared similar concerns, with the dangers of the road being the most common issue. Driving while impaired, or while talking or texting on cell phones, was discussed in many small groups. Some parents believed the importance of driver safety and responsibility should be discussed more at the high school level.

“These roads our kids drive are some of the windiest and curviest they’ll ever drive in their lives,” Shelburne parent Chris Powell said in one group.

Recent fatal car accidents in the area have driven home the point that tragedy can strike at any time.

Williston parent and CVU School Board member Jonathan Milne said drug problems are concerns he’s heard about from fellow parents. While he said he doesn’t believe it’s a huge problem, there are still teens that occasionally use. Jen Bickel-Hayes, Student Assistance Program counselor at CVU, agreed, but said students have ways to address problems.

“Because of confidentiality, kids can very openly come and talk to me if they need help,” Bickel-Hayes said.

Parents also said it’s hard to keep track of who their children communicate with, either on private cell phones or via the Internet on popular social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

“It’s hard to know what’s being posted, because they won’t let you be their friend,” Charlotte parent Ellen O’Brien said, with laughs from the audience.

National issues can also affect the stress level of students, which can snowball into bigger problems. Earlier in the meeting, McMannon talked about several outlying reasons why students today are under a lot of stress and may not know where it’s coming from. With the recent economic struggles, the United States has lost 600,000 jobs in recent weeks, including in Chittenden County. Unemployment is at its highest rate in years, at 6.5 percent nationally and 5.2 percent in Vermont.

Furthermore, the recent intensity of the presidential elections and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are adding more stress, McMannon said.

The principal said these concerns, which many parents are talking about, manifests inside students and creates stress, even though teens may not know where it’s coming from. He said it’s important for families to talk with children about current events.

“It is so important for us to remember why we do what we do,” McMannon said.

Parents seemed enthusiastic with the 90-minute discussion and hoped it would be a first step in addressing safety concerns in the CVU community. There was talk about future forums with parents and students, and more school-wide, safety-related assemblies.

McMannon said he was pleased with what he heard and hopes this first discussion will lead to more community dialogue, although he said it might not be easy.

“The challenge is how to get everybody to the table,” he said. “But I do know people are watching and listening.”