Bismarck-Mandan youth feel unsafe and unappreciated by the community, according to a recent survey commissioned by the Missouri Slope Areawide United Way.
Now, several community and school leaders are trying to raise awareness on these issues through a community forum March 26.
United Way Community Impact Coordinator Kendre Israel said United Way commissioned the survey as a way to find root causes of issues in the community.
The organization makes it a priority “to invest in issues before they become major problems,” she said.
The survey was conducted by the Search Institute in Minneapolis during the fall of 2011. Slightly more than 1,000 students in grades 6-12 were surveyed. The institute identified 40 assets that help influence positive choices and development among young people.
The assets fall into eight general categories: support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, constructive use of time, commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identity.
Among these are “safety” and “community values youth,” two assets with notably low percentages.
Only 54 percent of youth reported feeling safe in their neighborhood, community and school. That number is even lower among the female youth (46 percent).
Additionally, less than one third (31 percent) of students surveyed reported feeling valued by the community.
As a part of this process, United Way wants the community to be aware of the survey data and offer its own ideas, concerns, and reactions at the forum later this month.
Bismarck and Mandan public school systems as well as Saint Mary’s Central High School and Shiloh Christian School, have started using the data to develop new programs and initiatives.
According to Bismarck Public Schools Curriculum Coordinator Lori Gibson, students have been integral in bringing some of the findings back to their schools and interacting with teachers and principals.
“They have better ideas than we do,” she said.
Among these ideas was “Jam the Gyms,” an event held last fall where students worked to fill the four local high school gyms with donated clothes, blankets, winter gear and toiletries for those in the community who needed them.
Century High School sophomore Chase Geer, who worked on the Century event, said he was amazed by the response. He said the students collected more goods than they were expecting.
Geer also has been involved with the United Way and was among the students shown the survey data.
According to Geer, Century also has started a program within the past couple of months called Patriot Zone in an effort to reach out to more students.
On the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month, students from various extracurriculars invite other students — often ones who may not be as involved or perhaps don’t talk a lot at school — to have lunch in the art room.
“I hope that parents and authorities of the community, our elders, can see the information and work to change that,” Geer said of the upcoming forum.
Brenna Jessen, a senior at Shiloh, was involved in the “Jam the Gyms” event at her school and said she was impressed when Shiloh was able to get as many donations as the other schools, despite being smaller.
Jessen said she thought the survey data was eye-opening and felt it would help with the future decisions of both her school and the community.
Shiloh Superintendent Morgan Forness thinks this is a good opportunity to further involve young people in the community.
“I believe most youth really want to be viewed as a resource,” he said. “They just need permission.”
Forness, who was involved in the “Fill the Dome” event in Fargo (a precurser to “Jam the Gyms”), said he becomes frustrated sometimes with the negative view of youth some adults have. Seeing young people as problems is detrimental to the community, he says.
Forness, Israel and Gibson have been meeting since last summer with various community groups, including law enforcement, business people, social services, and the hospitals to talk about some of the survey results.
Local law enforcement were particularly receptive and interested in the data, according to Gibson, especially with the high amount of young people who reported not feeling safe.
These different community groups can play important roles in engaging with youth, said Israel.
“Either you decide as a community to be proactive on these issues, or the alternative is to be reactive,” he said.
The purpose of this forum, says Forness, is “first and foremost” to raise awareness. It is important for youth to feel heard.
Israel, Gibson and Forness hope the forum will be a stepping stone for further action.
“It’s about taking the time to reach out to youth,” Gibson said.
Many of the community groups are already looking at programs they can implement targeted at young people. Gibson also is considering starting a group for parents and community members that would continue “spreading the word.”
Though the groups mostly have been concentrating on the safety and community involvement issues, the survey measured a number of areas.
The survey also showed less than a quarter of students read for pleasure (24 percent). This is a finding Bismarck schools and Shiloh are already trying to address through reading initiatives among elementary students.
Additionally, nearly all the 20 internal assets — like equality and social justice, responsibility, interpersonal competence, and personal power — were more highly reported among young women than young men.
The community forum will be held at 6:30 p.m. March 26, with dinner provided, at the Bismarck Career Academy. Those interested in attending can RSVP at United Way’s website, www.msaunitedway.org.
The full survey data also is available there.