Immigrant Advisory Committee discusses trust building with SCPD, youth mental health

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SILER CITY — The Siler City Immigrant Community Advisory Committee heard subcommittee updates and discussed ways to better serve youth mental health needs with youth-serving agencies during its monthly meeting last Tuesday.

Few subcommittees managed to meet following April’s monthly meeting, but the Public Safety and Law Enforcement subcommittee — comprised of members Jisselle Perdomo, Danubio Vazquez Rodriguez and Shirley Villatoro — reached a major milestone: sitting down with Siler City Police Chief Mike Wagner and starting the planning process.

“We met with the Chief (Mike) Wagner and Lieutenant Jason Boyd in April, and we had a very productive and informative meeting,” Perdomo told the committee at-large during Tuesday’s meeting. “... And from the presentation, the impression that we got as the committee is that a lot is being done in terms of engagement and building that relationship with the people of Siler City, and we were happy to see that and how there has been a notable change from the past administration.”

The Immigrant Advisory Committee has five subcommittees: Communications and Leadership, Business & Entrepreneurship, Parks & Recreation and Youth Mental Health, Public Safety and Law Enforcement, and Housing and Public Transportation. Each holds up to three committee members, plus a town employee specializing in that topic.

All subcommittee topics derive from the town’s 44-item Building Integrated Communities action plan, which community leaders finalized in early 2019 to address immigrant residents’ needs based on information gathered during a two- to three-year community planning project. Residents may view it in full at unc.live/3Donqpl.

According to Wagner, who attended the meeting, the Siler City Police Department has since met most of the BIC plan’s public safety and law enforcement objectives. Wagner first joined the SCPD in June of 2019, about four months after the BIC steering committee drew up the plan that the town board of commissioners entrusted the committee with spearheading.

“If you go through those initial objectives — and I got in on the end of that project in 2019 — the good thing is that based upon the agenda items and the objectives, we have met all of the objectives, other than the one of the classification as far as the stops,” Wagner told the committee. “And as I explained to the group, that is a tricky thing to do as our Hispanic population grows, if you get one — it can be very distorted on paper and doesn’t really reflect the interactions that we’re having.”

The second BIC strategy designed to build trust and communication between immigrant residents and law enforcement recommends that the SCPD “share traffic stop and investigative (‘stop and frisk’) data on race, ethnicity and gender with (the) public via (the) SCPD website on a quarterly basis.”

“So I think that would be a great idea and we would love to help facilitate that any way we can,” Wagner added, “so we look forward to that opportunity because as Jisselle mentioned, I know that in house and out of house of the police department, I’m hearing from the community that we are doing things much differently, we are building bridges with all groups in Siler City.”

Other objectives include offering bilingual officers a 5% pay increase, creating a town communications and disaster relief plan, participating in the Hispanic Liaison’s annual Hispanic Heritage Fiesta and Spring Legal Fair, exploring the adoption of the FaithAction ID program, and having the SCPD participate in an implicit bias training, which they completed last December.

Town commissioners approved a 5% pay increase for all bilingual town employees last June. Likewise, the Liaison’s executive director, Ilana Dubester, told committee members in a previous meeting that a FaithAction ID sign-up event had been scheduled for April 2020 before COVID-19 forced them to cancel it.

The program framework, however, “is ready to go,” she said, once the community can gather together again in large groups — and Perdomo said her subcommittee had just initiated conversations with the SCPD about bringing it to fruition.

During the meeting, Perdomo also proposed that the committee consider whether the town should conduct an updated needs assessment to survey the immigrant community’s current relationship with local law enforcement.

“[The BIC assessment] was done about four years ago,” she said. “I know that during these four years, a lot has been done by the police department, by the Siler City Police Department, so I would like to see what the community thinks about now and what … changes that they would like to see implemented because there’s always room for improvement, and as the subcommittee … we also are open to help in any way that we can to continue to build trust between law enforcement and the town of Siler City.”

Youth mental health

In the second half of its meeting, the committee invited several representatives of local youth-serving agencies to facilitate a discussion on youth mental health, one of the eight BIC priorities. Participating agencies included Renaissance Wellness Services, Communities In Schools of Chatham County, and the Chatham County Public Health Department, among others.

Leading the conversation, however, was Nikolai Lujan — a 12-year-old student at Chatham Middle School and son of committee chairperson Hannia Benitez.

Speaking for his peers and himself, he told the committee that most mental health challenges he sees in his school stem from family-related trauma, like “mental loss” or “separated parents,” and bullying — either “for no reason,” or over race, sexuality and beliefs.

“There’s a lot of bullying between the youth,” he said. “... There’s, like, a lot of violence between the youth, and that goes back to mental health. Because of all this violence, there’s a lot of stuff that’s going into the 6th graders’ to 12th graders’ minds, so they do dumb stuff to get their mind off of it, like vape, smoking, sometimes even drinking alcohol. And they either harm friends or family to try to get their mind off of it — and harming themselves.”

Compounding the problem, Lujan added, is youth’s reluctance to talk to adults about mental health challenges, or situations leading to them.

“They just, you know, want to keep their problems secret with their friends,” he said. “They don’t really want it spreading to more adults and parents. Sometimes they don’t want it spreading, like, through the whole school because, like, they don’t want people to act differently around them.”

Beyond that, he said, some stay silent to cover up their involvement in “start[ing]” a situation; others feel intimidated by teachers and parents and worry they’ll face retaliation for admitting a problem.

“Sometimes they don’t start it, but they’re just scared that the bully’s going to come back,” Lujan said. “Because there’s a lot of — people make fun of you if they think you’re weak.”

When navigating his own challenges, Lujan said he personally didn’t feel comfortable sharing his feelings and kept his struggles hidden as long as he could before finally opening up — which, he recalled, helped him a lot.

“And also, usually, as a male, the problems that I faced made me feel weak and less masculine, and, you know, softer,” he said. “But then at the same time, it also gave me a quicker temper, and kind of, like, just wanting everybody to back off on me.”

To address these problems, Lujan suggested that schools carry out a weekly “check-in” sheet, digital or paper, to ask students to share with school counselors or their daily teachers how they’re doing.

“Because if teachers know what they’re going through at the moment, that will really help them to understand how to cope with that situation, and try to help it,” he said.

Following Lujan’s speech, several agencies also shared other challenges they had come across. Communities In Schools of Chatham County, represented at the meeting by Executive Director Tych Cowdin, noticed many of their youth struggle with a lack of technology at home, inability to connect in person with therapists, and frequent turnover among therapists.

“So you may have a good relationship with one individual — say, John, in this case — and John finds another job and moves out of the community,” Cowdin said. “And so, that trust and that relationship that you’ve built with that individual then is lost, and that youth goes back to maybe hesitation to put their trust in another adult that they would be speaking with.”

As for solutions, Cowdin suggested creating a network of school staff trained in responding effectively to mental health crises — to which Benitez also recommended offering similar training for youth since they often rely on their friends to help them overcome challenges.

In discussing the SCPD’s role in situations that often derive from juvenile mental health struggles, Wagner, meanwhile, went a step further: emphasize prevention over treatment.

“I teach my officers de-escalation techniques,” Wagner said. “I teach them through fair and impartial policing that we all have human biases, they’re natural; they occur. Why aren’t we giving our youth a 2.0 of that same type of decision-making skills to address conflict? So that they can communicate effectively, instead of letting it bottle up, take it deep inside, and then turn to substance abuse or other issues to deal with it.”

The Immigrant Advisory Committee will meet again at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, June 14, on Zoom at bit.ly/3JfKave.

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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