After-school programs shouldn’t just fade away

Olympia is going to close its after-school programs in June as part of $2.6 million in budget cuts. Shuttering the program will save $141,000.

But at what cost?

Middle school students without a place to go after school are more likely to engage in risky behavior. That should concern everyone in this community.

Let’s not forget how after-school programs got started in South Sound.

It was the November 1993 murder of 13-year-old Larry Rodgers of Lacey. He was stabbed to death as he walked along a street near his home. Rodgers was wearing a red hat and shirt and his three attackers mistook him for a rival gang member. His slaying prompted a call to action and the first community meeting drew 1,000 concerned residents.

The community began to mobilize. Anti- violence efforts were stepped up. New programs were created to give youngsters positive places to spend time after school and during the evenings.

Those after-school programs fill a real need. It’s a place where they can make friends and develop caring relationships with fellow students. They can interact with adult role models. It’s a place to build self esteem, work on conflict resolution skills and have fun.

Kathy Owen, a recreation supervisor for the city of Lacey, says: “Ten years ago or more, this community recognized the importance of these after-school programs — school districts, parents, cities — everyone defended them and could see their positive impact. Now, these programs are going away, and people aren’t talking about it anymore. That’s a shame.”

Owen’s 9-month program at Chinook Middle School accommodated up to 40 students on a budget of $20,000 a year. The after-school budget was cut in half during an earlier city budget cut yet was still serving 32 students when it was closed in another round of budget reductions earlier this year.

“The parents and students were very upset,” Owen said. “The parents are still calling, wondering when it will return. I have to tell them we don’t know.”

Lacey did not charge students enrolled in the after-school program. “The kids who came were kids who couldn’t afford to pay but really needed the program,” Owen said. “The school counselors loved it because they could refer students to us who needed help with their homework or needed a positive place to be after school instead of being home alone where they can get into trouble.”

And that’s a real risk.

According to School’s Out Washington, a Seattle-based organization that promotes quality after-school programs, there are almost a million school-aged youngsters between the ages of 5 and 14. They spend only 20 percent of their waking hours in school.

Those after-school hours are dangerous time.

“Fight Crime: Invest in Kids,” a national association of law enforcement professionals and prosecutors, says on school days, the prime time for violent juvenile crime is from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. The crimes that occur then are serious and violent — including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assaults.

According to the organization’s research, those after-school hours are when kids are most likely to:

 • Become victims of violent crime.

 • Be in or cause a car crash (for 16- or 17- year-olds). Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens.

 • Be killed by household or other accidents.

 • Get hooked on cigarettes.

 • Experiment with other dangerous drugs.

 • Engage in sexual intercourse. It’s the hours when girls are most likely to become pregnant.

 • Get hooked on video games that too often provide training for violent behavior.

That’s why its troubling to watch when Lacey closed its after-school program for middle school students this year and to hear of Olympia’s plan to stop funding the program at the end of the school year.

As Owen said, “The problem hasn’t gone away.”

The after-school programs must be top priority for funding when city budgets rebound.