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Jessie Levine
Town Manager
New London, NH

July 27, 2010

You may have heard or read about the vandalism of the Storywalk project behind the Kearsarge Learning Center. It is heart-breaking that the Storywalk (the result of collaboration between Tracy Memorial Library, the Recreation Department, and the Boy Scouts) would become the victim of …of…of what? Kids being kids? Teenagers acting out? Adults on the verge?

The Storywalk vandalism is not entirely new to New London. We have been trying to address ongoing vandalism throughout town. In Elkins, for instance, lifeguard chairs have been dragged into the water, bathrooms damaged, and porta-potties tipped over or, even worse, smeared with their contents. At Bucklin Beach, the door to the men’s room was kicked in. We witnessed some of New London’s rare graffiti on the walls of the vacant middle school. We wrap town building signs in plastic before Halloween. On my own street in Springfield, I pick up beer bottles and McDonald’s bags from the side of the road.

Bothered by what seemed like a malicious and pointed act against all things good, I talked to two experts on vandalism and adolescent behavior: David Seastrand, New London Police Chief, and Art Maerlender, Wilmot resident and assistant professor of neuropsychology and child-adolescent psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School.

Knowing that I like fact-based discussions, the Chief set me straight: there have only been 30 reported acts of “criminal mischief” this year, compared to 50 at this time last year and 34 the year before. The criminal mischief figures from the full year of 2009 actually represented a 30% increase over the prior year, so perhaps this column is a year late. But since we are in the 29th week of the year, 30 still represents one reported incident a week, and does not even include noise complaints (20 to date, up from 16 last year) or theft (35 to date, same as last year). 

I asked Chief Seastrand why he thought there was a difference over time, and he said that vandalism and other acts against property are cyclical. Some school classes are known for being more problematic than others, and as they grow up they grow out of it or move on to other forms of acting out, such as alcohol abuse. I’m sure we can all remember a class in high school that the administration was not sorry to see graduate (I’ll even admit that my Hopkinton High School class was one of them).

Okay, so maybe the problem is not as prevalent as I thought, but why does it happen at all? That is the question I posed to Dr. Maerlender, who told me that vandalism is often a piece of the larger picture of conduct disorder. Identifying the cause or purpose of conduct disorder is made more difficult because there are varying reasons for it, which can include less hostile acts such as artistic expression (graffiti) to needing money (theft) and overt aggression.


 

In some cases, Dr. Maerlender said that kids are just being kids, who in their adolescence need to try out a lot of different things as they develop into adults. In other cases, though, bad behavior is the result of pre-conditions and stressors in a kid’s life that could increase the chances that he or she will act out. These pre-conditions include the genetic pre-disposition to bad behavior, parental modeling (such as whether and how they set limits and otherwise interact with their children), and the social-cultural environment (how we view and treat the children in our community and in our society).

Not surprisingly, Dr. Maerlender said that if there is not a lot for kids to do, they are more likely to act out of boredom. While some social organizations provide opportunities for kids to be kids in less dangerous or damaging ways, there are often limited options in rural areas, and many options tend to be athletic in nature. Perhaps because we’ve become a more technological society, or perhaps because we know more about crimes against children than we used to, it is more difficult for kids to go out and play and discover themselves in the process. Obviously this subject alone could take up multiple inches of newspaper.

That being the case, it is even more important that parents teach and model acceptable behavior; and not just parents, but all adults. Dr. Maerlender insists that even though they don’t always show it, kids observe and listen to adults and try to do what they do and say. For that reason, we need to interact with and engage the kids who live around us, and be the people we want our kids to become. 

Tina Helm, Chair of the Board of Selectmen, is vocal in support of intergenerational activity. She loved going through the Storywalk with her grandchildren, and actively supports building a skatepark in town, and encourages the Recreation Department to work with the Council on Aging and other organizations to broaden the spectrum of activities available to people of all ages. If we don’t know the children in our town, then how can we monitor and influence their behavior?

To be sure, parents have to be responsible for their own kids. But even those without kids – and I am one of them – are still responsible for our community and for society as a whole. We cannot point the finger at “those kids” or “those people” who would do such a thing as vandalize public property. Those kids are part of our community, and if they are doing something wrong, then we all need to help them understand (preferably proactively) the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

 

Jessie Levine, Town Administrator
375 Main Street
New London, NH 03257

townadmin@nl-nh.com
Phone:
603-526-4821 extension 13
Fax: 603-526-9494

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