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Advocates rally at the Utah Capitol to put a teen center in every high school

Policy Project teen center rally, Utah State Capitol, Salt Lake City, Nov. 16, 2022
Martha Harris
Advocates, students, educators, legislators, parents and community members gathered at the Utah State Capitol to show support for The Policy Project’s plan to put teen centers in every Utah high school, Nov. 16, 2022.

The Policy Project is asking the Utah Legislature to help put teen centers for at-risk youth in all of the state’s high schools. Earlier this year, the advocacy group was the driving force behind the bill that placed free period products in all of Utah’s K-12 public schools.

There are 9,951 students experiencing homelessness in Utah’s public schools, according to data published by the Utah State Board of Education earlier this fall. That is a 10.4% increase from the last school year.

At a Nov. 16 rally under the Utah State Capitol’s rotunda, students, teachers, parents and community members filled the space with signs and cheers. There were booths on the outskirts where people could write letters to their legislators, learn about becoming student ambassadors for The Policy Project and make posters showing their support.

During the rally, Speaker of the House Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said they were excited to collaborate with The Policy Project to fund the centers through a private-public partnership with the Legislature.

“There's really nothing that government can do that's more important than providing resources and supporting the next generation so that you all and your friends can have great success in the future,” Wilson said. “And you would be really hard pressed to find leaders that care more about our future than The Policy Project.”

The proposed teen centers would have services aimed at meeting basic needs, like food pantries and laundry services. But the centers could look different at each school.

“We’ll try to let the communities decide what they want for their teen center and what their community needs,” said Policy Project Founder Emily Bell McCormick.

Policy Project teen center rally, Emily Bell McCormick, Utah State Capitol, Salt Lake City, Nov. 16, 2022
Martha Harris
Founder of The Policy Project, Emily Bell McCormick, addresses a crowd at the Utah State Capitol. High School students line the front of the audience and hold signs. Nov. 16, 2022.

For example, there may be a school that does not need laundry facilities because a local nonprofit that offers those services. Instead, the focus could be showers, computers and internet access because there’s a greater need for those services.

McCormick said the Larry H. & Gail Miller Family Foundation and the Huntsman Foundation have already committed to being private donors for this project. The specifics of how much the Utah Legislature would contribute versus private organizations will be discussed during the upcoming 2023 legislative session.

“We’re working with the Legislature on the bill and the appropriations right now to see what that’s going to look like,” she said.

Teen centers already exist at some Utah high schools. Mountain High School in the Davis School District opened a teen resource center this school year. Social worker Jennifer Christensen said Mountain High is the district’s alternative school and the center serves everyone because all of its students are considered at-risk.

Some Mountain High students at the rally said they’ve already seen the benefit of the center. Senior Moana Suka-Hanisi said she often goes in to get a snack and sees students who take their laundry in every morning. The rally made her feel heard and her takeaway was that there is a lot of support for this idea.

Policy Project teen center rally, Mountain High students and teachers, Utah State Capitol, Salt Lake City, Nov. 16, 2022
Martha Harris
From left to right, Mountain High School social worker Jennifer Christensen, senior students Dylan Olsen, Tyler Reed, Gettie Sheen, and Moana Suka-Hanisi, along with teen center advocate Jen Lund.

Senior Dylan Olsen has noticed a change for the better at the school since Mountain High’s center opened.

“I really like going into the teen center whenever I need to. I love our social workers and our workers who work in the teen center,” Olsen said. “I feel like every school should get the opportunity to do this.”

Several rally speakers emphasized that it is not enough to have physical facilities, but there needs to be continuing support. McCormick said a key part of the teen centers is that there will be someone working there who students feel they can trust. If any student has experienced trauma, abuse or mental health issues, they can go to the center and the person working there can help connect them with resources.

When State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson spoke at the rally, she pointed out signs that students were holding. One sign she particularly liked said, “teens helping teens.”

“It's not just about putting money forward and putting a teen center together, but what happens in terms of your interactions every day with each other?” she said. “Do you think about a teen center where ‘those’ kids go? Or are you in the mindset of these are my brothers and sisters, these are my friends, these are my peers?”

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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