Letter: Barry E. Stern, Purcellville

Editor: The chairwomen of the Loudoun and Fairfax county governments co-hosted on April 17 a Substance Abuse Summit at Northern Virginia Community College. While citizens can only hope the summit will come up with viable strategies for overcoming this scourge, substance abuse is only one of several social health challenges facing Northern Virginia:

  • Teen suicide,
  • Drug/opiate abuse,
  • School shootings,
  • Mental health breakdown,
  • Bullying,
  • Sexual misconduct,
  • Interracial strife,
  • Assimilation of immigrants, and
  • Human trafficking.

Like most of America, our local and state officials tend to keep solutions to such issues in their organizational silos. For every problem they create one or more programs and wonder why their piecemeal solutions rarely work and tend to cost taxpayers dearly. Typically, after a major incident like the awful school shooting in Florida, we citizens try to feel good about ourselves through demonstrations, candlelight vigils, bright colored ribbons and emergency meetings with elected officials. Meantime, sustainable solutions that address underlying causes are rarely implemented.

In my view, lack of interpersonal connectedness, caring and tolerance are common reasons for increasing social fragmentation and dysfunction in America, particularly among youth. We have to address these issues long before they go to college or the workplace, particularly nowadays when social media can isolate as easily as connect.

Several months ago, I met with staff of U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock to discuss my proposal for a new course in high schools and community-based organizations to help teens and young adults effectively and compassionately engage with one another to confront controversial social health issues. The 45- to 90-hour course would help youth learn how to develop and defend their points of view on a range of controversial issues while considering the views of others. In a Loudoun Now op-ed in July 2016, I proposed such a course, like the one I largely developed and taught at Berkeley High School in California and which remained in the curriculum for over 25 years. I suggested to Rep. Comstock, and encourage Loudoun and Fairfax counties to consider, hiring a colleague and me to work with school and social service authorities to update the course, train its instructors and test it locally.

Much as I admire the work of organizations that are addressing these issues, their highly targeted responses tend not to provide sufficient time and subject matter breadth for the in-depth training in emotional intelligence that today’s world requires. In a word, our communities must build better people to deal with this evermore complex world, and that requires opportunities over time to practice building healthy relationships in continually shifting situations. Such a course, probably team taught, would seem as important as any other for our youth. The lessons they would learn would last for a lifetime.

Barry E. Stern, Purcellville

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