Following the tragic death of a Peekskill teen last month, elected officials, school and city leaders are attempting to be more proactive in hearing the needs and wants of students to avoid further acts of violence.
During a town hall event hosted by Peekskill Superintendent Dr. David Mauricio and Mayor Andre Rainey, Peekskill High School students advocated for more transparency and communication between the student body and educators, citing a disconnect from their teachers and often feeling scared of being judged if there’s a desire to talk about taboo topics.
Student Ariana Okoth believes teachers only care about supporting students academically instead of providing that extra level of care when a personal situation arises. Due to the lack of comfort and learning opportunities from teachers and parents, she said students will instead turn to social media for answers or take matters into their own hands.
“With adults, there’s a lot of taboo topics; don’t talk abut gun violence, don’t talk about gangs, don’t talk about sex in general. We can’t keep putting it to the side,” Okoth said. “We’re not learning, and instead we’re learning from things like social media, and we’re going to opportunities that aren’t helpful for anyone and getting ourselves into bad situations.”
On Nov. 28, 18-year-old Peekskill resident Joaquin Salazar died after being stabbed during a physical altercation at China Pier on Louisa Street in Peekskill. Another teen was treated for injuries, while a 17-year-old, who was also injured, was charged with 2nd degree murder and 1st degree assault.
Since Salazar’s death, Peekskill officials have been vocal about connecting with the area’s student body to create a dialogue that would effectively address any issues that are currently creating a divide within the community.
Student Lamar Kingwood noted there’s a fear of being judged that has contributed to teens not turning to their teachers, guidance counselors or parents before making a decision. Okoth explained how that disconnect can result in a situation turning fatal, especially when teens don’t have the maturity to de-escalate a situation.
“How it’s taboo not to talk about it, we’re not going to talk to you about it and we’re going to talk to our friends about it,” Kingwood said. “We bottle stuff up and we really don’t have anyone to talk to because we don’t really want to talk to you guys about that stuff because I myself feel some are really judging.”
Mauricio added that about 25 students knew an altercation was going to happen between the group of teens the night Salazar died.
“No adult knew about it or at least no adult knew about it that could get in the middle of it,” Mauricio said. “One of the things that we’re missing is that relationship because one call from one student to one adult could have, may have, changed the trajectory and saved a life and I think that’s what we have to get better at and opening up those opportunities for dialogue.”
While stronger communication was urged during the over hour-long session last Wednesday, students also suggested the need for the city, school district and youth bureau to create more employment opportunities, college enrollment guidance, and workforce programs for those not interested in college.
However, while students rattled off a series of ideas that could heighten their abilities during high school and following graduation, Peekskill Youth Bureau Executive Director Tuesday McDonald said programs are already being offered by the city, further proving the need to bridge the divide with the student body.
“We all need to do a better job of making sure that work is put out there so people do know,” McDonald said.
Mauricio added how the district intends to create engaged opportunities and strengthen programs that address the social and emotional wellness of students. Additionally, the district will work to adjoin the over 75 community efforts to ensure each student receives the support that meets their desires and needs.
Additionally, attention will be put toward aiding alumni between the ages of 18 and 21. But for now, Mauricio said he’s focused on uniting the city with the student body to prevent anymore violent or fatal situations.
“What tends to happen is that something tragic happens, we all get together, we talk and do somethings and then it fades away until the next thing happens,” Mauricio said. “This can’t be a one-time thing, and I don’t want to attend any more vigils, I don’t want to speak at funerals, and we have to continue this dialogue moving forward.”