Students ask council to address youth issues

A group of West Kelowna teenagers have requested that municipal council pay more attention to the needs of youth in the community.

Student Voice, a group of Mount Boucherie Secondary leadership students, want council to set up a police liaison program at their school, help develop an annual or biannual Westside youth forum to provide input regarding issues pertinent to young people, assist local businesses that want to open facilities where young people like to congregate, and to recognize positive youth involvement in the community.

“We’re here to help you,” the delegation told council. “We’re not part of the problem, but part of the solution.”

The group won praise from the mayor and councillors for the presentation, especially for providing suggestions about  how the municipality could help.

According to one of the students, Stephanie Greenwood, a majority of students at her school are not happy with the activities and facilities currently  available to young people in West Kelowna.

After writing an article in a local newspaper, Greenwood and other students circulated a survey in the school to gauge what sort of facilities teens want to see provided.

While the top two—a bowling alley and indoor-outdoor water park—were described as private business enterprises and not government-funded  services, the students said incentives could be provided to help business investors make them a reality.

There used to be a bowling alley in Westbank but it burned down several years ago and was not rebuilt.

The survey, which was responded to by 1,200 of the roughly 1,500 students at the school, showed teens here want places they can go to spend social time with their peers outside of school.

Erika Nairismagi, another member of the student group, said she was close friends with Ashley Hyatt, a MBSS student who died last year after being stabbed at a house party in Peachland.

“I can’t help but think that if there was some place (for young people) to go, she would have been there and not at the party, and she would be alive today,” said Nairismagi.

“Something needs to be done in Ashley’s memory.”

Nairismagi said she had her own problems with drugs in Grade 10 as she was caught smoking marijuana and given a three-day suspension by the school principal.

The principal did not report her to the police, something Nairismagi says “saved my life.”

She is now a straight-A student and has won a global citizen youth award for her work helping people in Africa.

The issue of youth getting into trouble was tackled head on by the group in its call for a police liaison officer at the school.

The students said Mount Boucherie is the only high school in the Central Okanagan School District  that does not have a police liaison program.

As a result, they said  there are fights “at least once a week if not every two weeks” at the school that have to be broken up by staff. Drug use and drug deals are also prevalent, said the students.

And, what was described as an inappropriate use of technology,  sending sexual pictures over cell phones, called sexting, is common.

With a police officer’s “proactive and authoritative” voice at the school to warn teens about the consequences of bad behaviour, the students felt much of that could be addressed.

The issue of a police liaison officer for MBSS, which has the support of the West Kelowna RCMP,  has been raised before by council and rejected based on cost.

Council did, however, say  it likes the idea and the cost issue could be addressed with contributions from Peachland, the Westbank First Nation, CORD and the school district as well as West Kelowna.

Council, which just a few weeks earlier had flatly rejected a proposal by Coun. Rosalind Neis to include a page on the district’s website noting positive achievements by young people in West Kelowna, appeared to do a 180-degree turn, saying it now likes the ideas being put forward, especially the idea of a youth forum.

When asked about the apparent change of heart by his council, Mayor Doug Findlater said it was clear hearing directly from students helped.

“It makes a difference when they are standing in front of you,” he said.

Despite attempts by Neis and Coun. Bryden Winsby to act immediately on that suggestion,  council agreed to start looking at what could be done and how.

Coun. Duane Ophus told the students they would also need to talk to “the people who will have to pay the bills,” namely property owners, and win their support.

One of the students replied that she spoke to her parents and they encouraged her to make the request of council.

Other  students noted the impact and influence young people have on the community.

Outside the meeting, the students said they were not expecting immediate action but were thrilled with the response they received from council.

They plan to make a similar presentation to Peachland council.

In his response to the students, Findlater listed several projects the municipality is funding that provide venues and programs for young people, such as local arenas, the youth centre in Westbank, the Boys and Girls Club, local parks, the Johnson-Bentley Aquatic Centre and grants for events such as the MBSS dry grad.

“I would make the case we are trying,” he said.

But he promised to talk more with students, once council gathered more information.

Kelowna Capital News