Students Meet Governor, Discuss Youth Violence
By Isabelle D'Arcy, News Section Editor
Two Amherst students, Josh Mayer ’13 and Megan Kepnach ’13, were part of a group that met with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to discuss youth violence in Springfield, Mass.

Youth violence was one of three areas that students of the Applied Policy Analysis course offered over interterm researched. As part of their research, Mayer and Kepnach met with people from various community centers, the Springfield Mayor Sarno’s citywide taskforce on violence prevention, as well as students in Springfield, to try to grasp a deep understanding of youth violence in this area from those who are most deeply connected to it, rather than looking at the issue solely in terms of academic research and policy.

“[Academicians] come in [to Springfield], have a focus group, do some research and leave. We wanted to counter that perception, and come in and do our research, but come back with a product so that it’s mutually beneficial for the residents of Springfield and for us,” Mayer said, stressing the symbiotic nature of their approach. “You really need to go in and listen to the people and then apply the policy that we think is the most effective.”

After extensively researching youth prevention programs, the solution that both Kepnach and Mayer see the most promise in is the Open Gym Program that is developing in Springfield and in cities around the country. Open Gym essentially makes school gyms available after school hours, thereby providing the space and resources for kids to engage in constructive activities rather than violence.

Kepnach and Mayer have looked specifically at the effectiveness of Open Gym programs and at how these efforts in Springfield could be better coordinated. They are also tailoring their research to Springfield.

“There are many open gym programs around the country but we were trying to see exactly how it fits into Springfield’s unique social setting,” Kepnach remarked. They will present the findings of their research in a report on Wednesday.

Mayer and Kepnach invited the Governor to the focus group on youth violence on MLK Day, where they had gotten local teens — who are, according to Mayer, “the biggest stakeholders in the issue of youth violence” — together for a discussion. The meeting with Governor Patrick and Mayor Sarno was a rare opportunity for the teens to speak about their own experiences and ideas about the issue of youth violence in Springfield.

Kepnach and Mayer described their roles as being listeners, for the most part.

“I was there mostly to listen and ask a few questions, which I did, but it was mainly supposed to be a place for the Governor to talk to the high school kids and the governor to hear stuff from Springfield youth,” Kepnach said. “It’s not that they necessarily put some legislation down and figured out how to prevent things in their school but it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a governor sitting down with kids who are in high school and I would have loved to have that opportunity with my governor. So I think that is the main thing that everyone focuses on and felt really good about.”

Mayer and Kepnach were both impressed with how genuine the Governor was in listening to each student and feel hopeful that this meeting is the beginning of a conversation that will see improvement in youth violence in Springfield. True to the title of their interterm course, their research on what policies would most benefit Springfield have found application by engaging the community in a larger discussion of the issue.

Issue 12, Submitted 2011-01-26 03:43:37