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iMAD conference focuses on youth

SEBRING — Heartland Rural Health Network’s iMAD program held its I Make A Difference 2019 conference recently at the Champion for Children Circle Theatre in Sebring. The event was held in December and attendees included local children service providers, partners in prevention, parents, educators and advocates for childhood wellness.

The focus of the conference was on adolescent mental health topics, including understanding the changes an adolescent brain undergoes, puberty, and looking at the effectiveness of other youth programs in our community.

Donna Lucero, MA, LPCC, NCC, was the featured speaker. Lucero is the director of clinical services at All Faiths Children’s Advocacy Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico and she spoke about recognizing, understanding and responding to the impact of childhood trauma.

“Making sense out of behavior helps us understand what’s going on and informs our response,” Lucero said.

Lucero described how many children who are going through a trauma may act out, but others may tune out.

“Those are the kids who may not get the attention in school that others may” because they are not being aggressive, she said. “They are in fact not paying attention because they are worried if a parent is going to be alive at the end of the day, so they are most likely not learning at school.”

Lucero went on to say that trauma impacts emotional and cognitive development in children. Girls don’t stop developing until their mid-20s while boys’ development is usually complete by the late-20s to early-30s, she said. Another important fact to remember, Lucero said, is that trauma impacts memory in terms of how it is stored and retrieved.

“Many people are not able to recognize their trauma cues until they are older,” Lucero said. Trauma cues are tricky and they last a lifetime, she said.

Lucero talked about [emotional and cognitive] regulation and relationships. “They are connected,” she said. “They are oftentimes both impacted by trauma, not just one or the other.”

At the forum, program data from 2018-19 was presented by the University of Florida evaluators Dr. Julie A. Graber, professor and chair, Department of Psychology; Dr. Sarah D. Lynne, assistant professor, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences; and Dr. Allison Metz, postdoctoral associate, Department of Psychology.

The iMAD program administers entry and exit surveys to participating students, and the surveys are sent directly to the University of Florida for evaluation.

“This is a teen pregnancy program but it’s taking into account things that are part of a larger picture,” Lynne said. “Those things are managing stress, having relationships that keep you out of trouble, managing conflict without causing more conflict and sharing ideas about things that really matter with a trusted adult.”

“This all ties into the concepts of regulation and relationships I talked about,” Lucero said.

“Our trauma kit is our ability to develop human relationships,” Lucero said. “It is with us all the time. Regulate then educate.”

Prior to completing the program students reported their intention to have sexual intercourse in the next six months if given the change. 84% of students reported they did not intend to have sexual intercourse. However, 25% of males reported they intended to have sexual intercourse in the next six months if given the chance compared to 7% of females. The percent of youth intending to engage in sexual intercourse was lowest among sixth graders (8%), followed by seventh graders (17%) and highest among eighth graders (24%).

The program has a significant and immediate positive effect for the youth at highest risk — those who reported they intended to have sex prior to receiving the program. Among those youth, 32% reported that they no longer intended to have sex in the next six months after receiving the iMAD program.

According to the UF evaluators, the program “appears to be effective in reducing intentions to have sex and increasing sexual health knowledge among middle school students.”

“This information is great, because we can see through the data that the program is working,” Lynne said. “We are seeing this reflected in the state data, and this is really exciting.

“Our goal is to try and help as many kids as we can,” she said.

Lynne said the UF evaluators want to see the program maintain these gains and provide further benefits like bullying and prevention during the program and how it might impact program outcomes, and focusing on youth homelessness among sexual and gender minority youth.

“One of the most beautiful and key things I took away from this much-needed conference is ‘regulate then educate,’” said Aisha Alayande, executive director of Heartland Core Wellness, formerly Drug Free Highlands. “This quote by Donna Lucero speaks to how hard it may be to get through to youth and adults because we are speaking to people who are constantly in survival mode.

“It is hard to reach someone who has built up walls and adopted coping skills that keep everything out, even when it keeps out the good stuff.”

Community partners for the conference included Champion for Children Foundation, Chicanes, Dunkin’, Panera Bread and Starbucks.

The mission of the iMAD program is that each person who encounters the program is left feeling like they make a difference, with one of those ways being through serving the community. The program offers in-school and after-school initiatives that focus on social and emotional learning techniques such as self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making for middle and high school-age students in our community.

The aim of Heartland Rural Health Network is to improve access to quality health care by implementing creative solutions in collaboration with network members and community partners in rural areas. The network’s service areas include Highlands, DeSoto and Hardee counties and portions of Charlotte and Polk counties.

For more information about the iMAD program, call Larry Moore, iMAD program director, at 863-452-6530.

Avon Park High makes it a positive 1st semester

AVON PARK — The first semester of the 2019-20 school had a lot of positives for Avon Park High including being recognized as one of only five schools in the district to be awarded as a Florida Positive Behavior Interventions and Support Model School – and the only high school.

The PBIS model uses team-based planning and problem solving to implement positive behavioral interventions and supports to help every student have a successful school experience.

From day one, students learn basic behavior expectations, to “BE RED” (Respectful, Engaged and Disciplined), and are reminded of these expectations daily.

In addition, school staff regularly recognize and praise students for their good behavior. There are also rewards given to students with zero discipline referrals and who have no unexcused absences and two or fewer excused absences from school each nine weeks.

There were 380 students who qualified for the first nine weeks quarterly PBIS Award.

Students received a ticket for free entry into any 2019 Avon Park High School regular home sports game and an Avon Park High School spirit bracelet.

Also, new to Avon Park High this school year is the Highlands High School Aviation/Aerospace Program.

Building an airplane is just part of what seven APHS students are getting to experience in the Aviation/Aerospace class this year. On certain days during the week the class goes to the Sebring Regional Airport where they are in a “lab” session building an aircraft for retired NASA astronaut Story Musgrave, and other aviation/aerospace related hands-on activities.

Students have been studying different types of aircraft, how they are made, understanding aerodynamics to understand flight, and the four forces of flight.

Also, Avon Park High Robotics is now up to three teams that compete around the state. The class is in high demand and added a new section this year. The goal is to focus more on computer science and programming to add autonomous to the curriculum, and to find a drone program that ties into robotics.

Sebring man dies in New Year's crash

AVON PARK — A single vehicle crash early Wednesday morning claimed the life of a Sebring man when the car he was driving ran into an abandoned building off of County Road 17A in Avon Park.

According to Florida Highway Patrol, at about 1:20 a.m. Troy Lee Jones, 31, was driving his 2007 Pontiac Vibe south on County Road 627 and for unknown reasons ran the stop sign at County Road 17A, continuing southbound. In doing so, the vehicle entered a private driveway at Big Bang Ranch, colliding with a barbed wire fence and an abandoned building where it came to a final rest.

Jones, the sole occupant of the vehicle, did not survive the crash.

In 2019, there were 23 traffic fatalities in Highlands County, three of which were pedestrians, according to unofficial records kept by the Highlands News-Sun. The most recent crash occurred Dec. 24 when two vehicles driven by a Vero Beach man and a Port St. Lucie man hit head on at State Road 70 and County Road 721 near Brighton. Both men died. From that crash, three passengers were transported to hospitals for treatment of their injuries and two refused treatment on scene.

Substance abuse treatment center permit request withdrawn

SEBRING — The south Florida LLC that was hoping to operate a substance abuse treatment center at 1621 Lakeview Drive, Sebring, has withdrawn its application for a conditional use permit.

Larry L. Bieda sought to open the treatment center for up to 15 people in the existing structures, a two-story house and separate garage apartment, at the Lakeview Drive location, which is on the lakeside of the road just north of the Elks Lodge.

Bieda is the owner of Academy Health Solutions, located in Palm Beach County.

Sebring attorney Clifford Rhoades, who is representing Bieda, sent an emailed letter on Dec. 26 to City Attorney Bob Swaine stating, “At this time, Academy Health Solutions, LLC has decided to withdraw its application for the conditional use permit on the real property located at 1621 Lakeview Drive, Sebring.”

City Manager Scott Noethlich informed Highlands News-Sun on Monday that the city is removing the agenda item summaries for both the public hearing and council action on the conditional use permit from the Jan. 7 council meeting agenda.

At the Dec. 10 Sebring Planing & Zoning Board meeting about a dozen area residents spoke in opposition of the treatment center proposal citing it is inappropriate for the neighborhood that has a nearby school, businesses and many senior residents.

The Planning & Zoning Board, by a 4-0 vote, denied the request for a conditional use permit for the treatment center. One board member abstained due to a conflict of interest.

The City Council had continued the issue at its Dec. 17 meeting.

City Attorney Bob Swaine had recommenced it be continued, stating, “This conditional use application has raised a number of issues under both federal and Florida law and over and above the conditional use permit requests, the applicant made an ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] request for reasonable accommodations.

“The applicant is not entirely clear on what reasonable accommodations they are asking for and so to take action on that tonight without trying to figure out what reasonable accommodation may need be to provided, could have adverse consequences to the city.”

6th student sues School Board in 2010 daycare abuse case

SEBRING — The School Board of Highlands County is facing another lawsuit from a former Lake Country Elementary School student related to sexual abuse nearly a decade ago in the school’s aftercare program.

In July 2017, the School Board approved a $3.5 million settlement agreement related to the legal claims of five female students who were the victims of sexual abuse in 2010 in the after-school daycare at Lake Country Elementary. At the time, the students were ages of 6 and 11 and were allegedly sexually abused by the husband of the school’s aftercare program manager, according to authorities.

Herman Law, Boca Raton, which represented the five students, informed Highlands News-Sun that it was filing another related lawsuit on Monday in U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida.

The lawsuit is on behalf of plaintiff, Jane Doe No. 6, who was born in June 1999.

The lawsuit complaint states that Maria Gonzalez was employed by the School Board and was the manager of the Lake Country aftercare program. Gonzalez allowed her husband, Orestes Gonzalez, to have “unfettered access” to the children in the school’s aftercare program on the school’s premises.

The statement claims, then-Lake Country assistant principal Steve Beck, then-principal Majel Bowerman and the School Board failed to take any action in response to a report of sexual abuse from a parent who spoke to Beck in 1994. The parents transferred their children to another school due to a lack of response from the school and fear that their daughter was at risk of abuse by Orestes Gonzalez.

“Orestes Gonzalez’s ongoing participation in the aftercare program at the school was open, obvious and known to administrators and staff at the school, including principal Bowerman,” according to the complaint.

During her kindergarten and first-grade years, Jane Doe No. 6 was sexually assaulted in a restroom at Lake Country Elementary on multiple occasions, the complaint states.

Jane Doe No. 6 never disclosed the sexual abuse to her parents when she was a minor. The first time she disclosed the sexual abuse was in 2019 when she was Baker Acted for an attempted suicide.

The complaint states that Jane Doe No. 6 has suffered and will continue to “suffer severe and permanent physical and psychological injuries” and demands compensatory damages, attorneys’ fees, punitive damages and fees and costs.

Orestes Gonzalez pleaded guilty to five counts of lewd molestation and lewd conduct on Dec. 12, 2011, and was later sentenced to 13 years in prison.

He passed away Feb. 27, 2019 at the age of 86 while in state custody.