Over the past two years, the Purcellville‘s Police Department reached out to community youth with several initiatives.
Police Chief Darryl C. Smith Sr., now retired, said in an interview in October 2014 he was heartsick that, despite efforts by the department to alert students about the dangers of heroin addiction and other harmful behaviors, “so many of them don’t know about the many resources available to help them.”
The department teamed up with Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman and his deputies to host the “Save Our Youth” community forum at the Town Hall in late 2014, after a teen was shot and killed by a Purcellville police officer. The 17-year-old was threatening to kill himself before he lunged at the officer with a knife, according to a commonwealth’s attorney’s report that found the officer was justified in his action.
The well-attended event included a number of police representatives, school personnel, ministers and mental health professionals, members of the Purcellville Town Council, parents and community members, but only a few students.
But getting students to know of all the resources available to them continues to be an elusive goal. Town Councilwoman Karen Jimmerson said she heard of one idea—from her daughter, who is a junior at Loudoun Valley High School.
“She thinks just kids should be invited, not the parents, so they can ask questions when parents aren’t present,” Jimmerson said.
When she asked her daughter why don’t kids feel they can talk to their parents, she got one of those straight teenage answers: “Because that’s what you are—a parent.”
As Jimmerson said, ruefully, “If kids see it, why can’t we see it?”
Perhaps a non-confrontational, informal atmosphere where young people could ask questions of professionals and share among themselves might be beneficial, Jimmerson suggested.
Purcellville Police Lt. Joe Schroeck said mental health is an ongoing battle, calling the recent public suicide by a young Loudoun Valley High School student “very hard on the community.”
Identifying young people in trouble is key, Schroeck said. While staff members at the town’s two high schools do a good job, “sometimes kids fall through the crack,” he said. The police department tries to partner with mental health organizations, and the schools, but its active responsibility is to step in only when an individual poses a danger to themselves or another.
Purcellville Police Chief Cynthia A. McAlister says her concern is for young adults. It’s up to teachers, parents and kids’ friends to notice possible problems—low grades, poor attendance, losing interest in activities, etc.—she said. “Everyone needs to be paying attention and we need to be talking.”
McAlister is sympathetic to kids who have so much pressure on them today, she said, including from social media interaction.
But she echoed Smith’s lament about not being able to reach kids, citing a heroin presentation put on by the Purcellville Police Department last October. “Kids don’t even know you’re here and what’s available,” she said, hoping that school representatives would reach out to the police department more.
She hopes to build on the town’s community policing efforts. “I want kids to understand and to be comfortable with us, to talk with us at various events, not just in an emergency,” she said.
McAlister echoed the need for kids to have a place where they can talk and be themselves and said she hopes the department can become more involved in other programs, such as church and Boy Scout programs.
Her goal is to have two programs for the year to better connect with the community, and to hold focus groups. “We’ll start by rolling it out in different areas, keep them small and informal—perhaps over a cup of coffee,” she said.
All that, she hopes, will create a more trusting atmosphere.
See related Loudoun Now articles: “Teens Help Teens Stop Suicide with New Partnership” and “A Turning Point for Mental Health Support.”