Berkshire students, educators fear changes to DA's Office youth programs

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PITTSFIELD — For Ashley Barnes, serving on the Berkshire District Attorney's Youth Advisory Board was so meaningful that she wrote about it in her college and scholarship application essays.

The board, which organizes the annual Strive Youth Leadership Conference, is just one of several school-based education programs offered by the office in which Barnes has participated over the years.

Now a Lee Middle and High School senior, Barnes said working with this team and with her fellow board members has taught her a range of skills, from how to organize an event to how to talk with younger children about issues like bullying.

"It's helped me find what I want to do,"she said, noting that she's looking to pursue a career in education.

But now, the future of Strive and those other programs are in question.

Some Berkshire County students and school leaders say they have been notified that there will be changes to the District Attorney's Office's education and outreach programming at the end of this school year.

But the office has not been clear on what those changes are, whether certain programs will be continued, or what personnel changes might be coming within the current education and outreach department. There are four employees in the office directly connected with those programs.

"[The] District Attorney's Office is conducting a thoughtful and continuing process to update its community outreach program," according to a statement from Dennis Yusko, spokesman for District Attorney Andrea Harrington. "We intend to complete the process in the summer."

Harrington has declined repeated requests by The Eagle for clarification on the matter. But in an interview published by iBerkshires, she has said the school programs will be "scaled back."

At the Strive conference, which was attended by more than 200 middle school students from across the county, Barnes told The Eagle that she and her fellow board members are working to arrange a meeting with Harrington to discuss the matter.

In a letter to the editor published in the April 8 edition of The Eagle, an elementary school teacher wrote that she believes the DA's Office intends to dissolve the Botvin LifeSkills Training program in June.

LifeSkills is a globally utilized substance abuse and violence prevention training and education program for teachers and students. Through various grants, this and other education programs have been offered to local schools free of charge through the DA's Office.

"Unfortunately, the money allocated for this early intervention program through the Berkshire County district attorney's office is now being funneled toward the Juvenile Diversion Program. Therefore, Life Skills will no longer be available to the many schools in Berkshire County after June," wrote Ruth LeCompte, a third-grade English and science teacher at Lee Elementary School, on behalf of the school's Grade 3-6 team.

The school was the first in the county to pilot the program in 2015.

LeCompte said she's heard from people associated with the program that it will sunset next month.

In the current school year, the LifeSkills program was funded through a grant of $24,800 from the statewide Youth Opioid Prevention Grant Program, administered by the Attorney General's Office.

According to a May 2017 news release from the DA's Office, LifeSkills was offered at 22 Berkshire County schools during the 2016-17 school year, serving grades three to nine.

In addition to the LifeSkills Training program, the office's outreach and education department has brought anti-bullying and an eighth-grade leadership training program into local schools. The department also has a presence at various community events and has previously led education programs for older adults on topics like elder fraud.

Since stepping into office in January, Harrington has said she intends to launch a new juvenile jail diversion program this spring. While addressing members of the Berkshire branch of the NAACP in February, she said Pittsfield City Councilor Helen Moon, the office's new director of special projects, is spearheading that program, which is designed to intervene with youth at risk of becoming involved in the criminal justice system. The diversion efforts will include making direct referrals for students to various intervention and support programs and services in the community.

It is unclear whether LifeSkills, the Youth Advisory Board or other initiatives will be continued as part of the juvenile diversion efforts.

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An April public job posting for a full-time juvenile diversion program specialist for the office says the specialist must "Develop effective working relations and cooperate with law enforcement, probation, social services, and the courts throughout the entire case management process," and that "other duties may be assigned." It does not mention work with schools.

The office also posted in April the position for a full-time director of community engagement, who would be "responsible for managing and cultivating partnerships with community groups, organizations and other stakeholders to advance the mission and strategic goals of the Berkshire District Attorney's Office."

The application deadline has since closed for both roles.

James Stankiewicz, retiring headmaster of St. Agnes Academy in Dalton, also expressed his concern after hearing that the LifeSkills program might be discontinued. He composed his own letter to Harrington, a document which he shared with The Eagle.

"It has come to my attention that after this school year, your office will no longer be offering Life Skills training to our students," he wrote in the letter, dated April 6. "We have participated in DA's programming for many years and I have found it to be a very useful and necessary part of our curriculum."

Stankiewicz indicates in the letter that he had heard about the program change "on the street" rather than directly from the office.

"My experience and relationship with the District Attorney's Office goes back to the early 1990s with [DA] Gerry Downing. As a longtime educational leader in our communities I find your decision to stop student training in the schools to be shortsighted and would hope that in-school programming will continue in some fashion," Stankiewicz wrote.

Both he and the Lee Elementary staff praised the representatives from the District Attorney's Office for delivering the LifeSkills program to students.

"Students connect with DA representatives in a positive way and develop relationships with them — they are the face of your office to our school age children and our staff," he wrote.

In a follow-up interview with The Eagle, LeCompte said LifeSkills, an eight-week, in-school program, was a good alternative to programs like D.A.R.E., and other one-time school assemblies.

"[The students] were very interested in it and the pull to it was that the [instructors] were from the DA's office," she said. "I was so impressed with their skills in delivering materials to the kids, and they are good role models."

LeCompte said she's overheard students discussing the lessons taught in the program.

"If kids are talking amongst themselves, you know you've hit the mark," she said.

While some schools have relied on the education and outreach programs of the Berkshire District Attorney's Office, others use it to supplement other school programs, or don't use it at all.

Timothy Lee, principal of Muddy Brook Elementary School in Great Barrington, and former superintendent of Lenox Public Schools, said the Youth Advisory Board program "was always highly regarded by the participants."

And the elementary school anti-bullying programs offered by the office supplemented other programs the school offers itself to address social-emotional learning and well-being.

"We have many different approaches," he said.

Monument Valley Middle School Principal Ben Doren said that while the school used DA office staff and programs in previous years, it now develops and implements its own programming. The school has also used the The Brien Center's Patrick Miller Youth Substance Abuse Program, which is subsidized by grants.

In an email to The Eagle, Doren said he has also heard of potential changes to the district attorney's education and outreach department.

"I do know they are shifting focus, and I am in support of their community vision," he said.

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6239.


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