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By Terry Dean
The Buzz Café hosted several parent cafes this fall around the issue of drug use at Oak Park and River Forest High School. So it was more than fitting for the Buzz, 905 S. Lombard, to host a conversation Monday evening with this year's Wednesday Journal's Villagers of the Year for Oak Park and River Forest — members of the OPRF Citizens Council.
This year's honorees are, in actuality, those members of the council who helped spearhead the year-long drug awareness campaign of 2010, which began with a community-wide May forum at the high school and wrapped up with smaller discussion groups this fall at several venues in the two villages. The goal was not just to talk about the issue but to get people educated and involved.
The campaign took shape throughout the summer, culminating in the creation of several committee groups that formed late last summer. Those committee groups — which included council and non-council members — were given a specific focus. Parents and students were just two of the five areas the groups agreed needed to be addressed. Dozens of people who participated in last year's forums, including many with no children at the high school or any previous involvement with the council, signed up.
Holding parent and teen "cafes" were among the solutions they came up with.
OPRF has a somewhat lengthy history with addressing drug and alcohol abuse among some of its students, but the issue was brought to the forefront more publicly this year than at any other time previously. The parent and teen cafes were one attempt to get adults and kids to talk more openly about the issue. The Buzz seemed like a logical place to host those talks, say council members.
Sheila Carson and Roma Steinke were among those who joined the "parent action committee." Neither was previously aware that the drug issue was so extensive and pervasive at the high school. Lisa Lowry also came on board. All three are co-leaders of the group and have kids at the high school. The three women met at the Buzz Monday with longtime council members Mimi Skapek and Iris Saavedra, a former co-chair.
All, but Saavedra especially, credited former OPRF superintendent Attila Weninger with getting the campaign off the ground. The Citizens Council is an advisory group commissioned by the high school, its members approved by the board. Back at a meeting in August 2009, Saavedra and other members met with Weninger to discuss goals for the upcoming school year. The group expressed interest in addressing the drug issue at the high school.
To get a better understanding about the depth of the problem, Weninger put together a panel of OPRF administrators to discuss the issue with the council at their February 2010 monthly meeting.
That turned out to be a real eye-opener for members, Saavedra recalled. But she recalled there was some push-back among some school staff about taking this issue public. Saavedra — who no longer has children attending OPRF, her daughter having recently graduated — is an OPRF alum herself. She said the school has always had a substance abuse problem, even during her time there in the 1980s.
She also thinks resistance to going public was tied to frustration and being overwhelmed by the problem.
"I think they've always known, and I feel for them as teachers because how much responsibility are you supposed to take for the children?" she said. "It's like, who's parent number one? I think that's a lot of where the push-back comes from."
"Now they have to take on policing as well as teaching — that can be pretty daunting," added Lowry, who has two students at the school.
"I know some classes are more challenging than others," Saavedra said. "There's behavioral issues and drug issues. I mean, how many times are you going to have to fight? You as an individual, you're up against 26 kids who are bigger than you and taller than you, how many times are you going to fight about 20 cell phones, disrespect and obscenities?"
Having greater support for staff as well as students was one of the solutions that came out of the heavily attended public forums last year.
'Everyone needed to be involved'
Following that February meeting with administrators, the group invited another panel to speak the following month, this one featuring village and township officials.
In addition to that session, the school — again spearheaded by Weninger — released the results of the 2006 Illinois Youth Survey, conducted bi-annually by the state's Human Services Department to students in grades six, eight, 10 and 12. The survey asks students about their drug and alcohol use, among other related issues. OPRF students reported having high marijuana and alcohol use, results mirrored in the 2008 and 2010 survey results. But the school had never before released those results publicly. Weninger changed that.
He had discussed the 2006 survey data with the council back in 2009. Members initially wanted to talk about the drug issue with school staff, but Weninger encouraged them to broaden that discussion to the larger community. The council created a sub-committee of members to specifically deal with the substance-abuse issue. It was Weninger's idea to hold a public forum.
"I pushed the group to really look at this issue — more than just a presentation, more than just a give-and-take between the school and the Citizens Council," said Weninger, in a phone interview with Wednesday Journal on Monday.
Weninger, who's currently interim superintendent for the Stevens Point Area Public School District in central Wisconsin, said OPRF needed to address the issue on a wider scale. That also addressed another concern from school staff about going public — that the drug issue would be focused just on OPRF. Saavedra said that was never the idea. Weninger insisted that the substance-abuse problem with kids was a community, not just a school issue.
"We could not make the school the focus of the problem," he said. "Yes, we have kids every day and yes there are issues within that group of kids, whether it was bringing something on campus or using, but it wasn't the school alone that was going to solve this problem. It was going to be the community, the police, the churches, parents in particular — everyone needed to be involved if we were going to make headway."
Weninger ended his tenure at OPRF last July. He also credited his former colleagues — namely Principal Nathaniel Rouse, Assistant Principal Janel Bishop, discipline dean Jason Dennis, and community liaison Kay Foran — for helping with the drug awareness campaign. Weninger added that he likes what's been happening since last summer's forums.
The various forums last year produced a lot of discussion and proposed solutions from participants. The first one at the high school last May was attended by more than 200 and featured more than two dozen panelists. That event was followed up with smaller but also well-attended roundtable discussions in June at OPRF. In July and into August, the committee groups started to take shape. Among their charges were organizing events, including the cafes, and compiling solutions and ideas that grew out of them.
A recent parent café/forum in December at River Forest Community Center focused on the issues of a closed campus, drug testing for students and even the possible use of drug-sniffing dogs. Those topics were broached at the various forums last year. Views ranged from broad support for some of those ideas to staunch opposition. Opinions varied even among the members at the Buzz on Monday.
Saavedra says no to closing the campus, for instance, because that would punish all students. Lowry and Steinke support a modified approach, making it a privilege earned by some students. The high school has also been looking into a closed campus as a possible solution, along with other issues, talks that are likely to continue this year. Another public forum is scheduled at OPRF next month.
But throughout last year's various forums and meetings, the committee members have stressed that their focus is on prevention, not punishment. The women at the Buzz on Monday reiterated that point.
"The focus has been therapeutic, not punitive," Skapek said. "One of the goals is education. That has always been the first goal."
Still, that message sometimes falls on deaf ears, they agreed.
"[To] the people who say, 'Well, you're beating up on the good kids and not all kids are using and they're all good kids,' I agree they're all good kids," said Carson, who oversees the group's Facebook page, OPRF Drug Free Teens. "But we are in a really tough environment, and it's really bigger than the high school, and it's bigger than what the parents can do."