Supporting minority teens in Utah: Overcoming challenges and finding solutions

May 12, 2023, 6:01 PM | Updated: 6:47 pm

SALT LAKE CITY – Being a teenager can be challenging enough, but imagine facing those difficulties as a minority in a predominantly white community.

According to a recent Student Health and Risk Prevention, or SHARP, survey, Black and Latino students in Utah are more likely to feel unsafe at school, with 11% of Black students and 7% of Latino students reporting feeling unsafe, compared to only 4% of white students.

Additionally, minority students can face an uphill battle in the classroom due to stereotypes and a lack of belonging.

For sisters Tayler and Tianna Jolley, mixed emotions surface as they recall the carefree days of their childhood. They admit that life was easier back then before they felt different from their peers.

“I’d like to go back and smile like I used to in elementary school,” Tayler said.

Tayler, 18, vividly remembers an incident in her sophomore year during history class where she felt uncomfortable answering a question.

“I actually got kicked out of class for defending myself, because I refused to answer a question about slaves because I just did not feel comfortable,” she said. “I felt like my teacher was kind of trying to embarrass me.”

Tianna, 16, had a negative experience with teachers who assumed she knew everything about African culture.

“When we would do ‘represent your culture’ day, the teachers would come up to me and say ‘Oh, can you represent the African culture?’,” she said. “Oftentimes I said, ‘Oh I am African-American,’ and they said, ‘Oh well you’re still African. You must know your culture. You must know where you come from?’”

Unfortunately, their experiences are not unique. Dr. William Smith, Chief Executive Administrator for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at Huntsman Mental Health Institute, acknowledges that minority students often face an uphill battle in the classroom.

“Black and brown students face different challenges around stereotypes, how smart they are, their sense of belonging and those things cause a threat to their success,” he said.

He said that places them in an uncomfortable position, sometimes caused by their teachers.

“In that uncomfortable position of always trying to prove oneself, speak for their entire group, it’s an additional stressor that for many of them they are not really prepared to deal with,” he said.

Smith emphasizes the importance of early intervention and creating a supportive environment. He said providing a sense of safety and comfort during the elementary years is crucial, as it can help prevent some of the stressors that may lead to depression and feelings of isolation.

Community-based organizations play a vital role in addressing these issues, he said – such as Big Brothers Big Sisters Utah.

Rachal Milford, a Mentoring Support Coordinator for BBBSU, said of the 484 teens they currently serve, 60% of them are minorities.

Their mission is to pair children with mentors who can guide them through challenging times.

“We want these kids to know that there is no limit to what their potential is,” Milford said. “We want them to feel that they can do and be anything they want to do with zero limits put on them.”

All day Friday, KSL TV is dedicating its coverage to Teens In Crisis. The CDC published results of a concerning survey earlier this year, reporting increased sadness and mental distress among teen girls, LGBTQ+ youth and minority groups. We’ll look into what efforts are being made right here in Utah to help our youth.

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Supporting minority teens in Utah: Overcoming challenges and finding solutions