Although it now seems like ancient history, one of the problems I first faced as a River Forest Park District commissioner 15 years ago was how to respond in a positive way to a series of violent, gang-related incidents involving youths in our communities. Up to that point, many parents in both villages thought the problems of gangs, drugs and the violence that accompanied them that had so plagued Chicago's West Side and other nearby communities had somehow bypassed Oak Park and River Forest.
Fortunately, a task force came up with a solution, the Youth Interventionist Program, which obtained funding to supplement several initial grants through an intergovernmental agreement among all of the taxing bodies in the two villages.
What I think all of the taxing bodies, the villages, townships, school districts, libraries and park district realized back in 1996 was that gang and drug problems are not confined to the high school, or certain village neighborhoods near Austin, Galewood and Maywood. Gang members from other areas and at-risk youths — the main source of potential gang members — were already in our schools, at the playgrounds, in our libraries and participating in recreational programs offered throughout our communities.
The only way to address these problems and the violence that could result from them was for every governmental unit to make a stand against gangs and drugs and have a stake in a program that could identify the problems, and work with the various agencies for solutions.
Now it seems the River Forest Park District has decided that the problem of gangs and drugs, at least in River Forest, is somebody else's problem. On the one hand, some board members think this is not something the park district is authorized to fund. Others think that because there may not be much evidence of gang-related incidents in any of their parks, there isn't really a gang or drug problem. Neither excuse stands up under any scrutiny.
The supposed lack of authority under the park code for the Youth Interventionist Program is simply a red herring. The park district offers recreational activities in its parks, in some of District 90's facilities and at other public and private facilities in the community. It offers those programs to teens and preteens, a target audience for drug use and gang membership. It is clearly within the park district's authority to offer and pay for these recreational programs, and to pay for the staff to run them safely and professionally.
Preventing, identifying and responding to issues involving gangs, drugs and violence that have and might occur in any of these programs is within the district's authority, and something most residents would think incumbent upon the park district board to provide for. The intergovernmental agreement, which the park district clearly had the authority to enter into, is a lawful means of providing these services to all the governmental units.
When the agreement that helps to fund the Youth Interventionist Program came up for renewal this summer, the River Forest Park District balked when asked to commit to a budgeted amount of $4,117, or 1.67 percent of the overall funding of the program. Since each agency is billed for the particular services it uses, the actual costs to the park district have historically been far less than that amount.
The Youth Interventionist Program is the most cost-effective way for the River Forest Park District to identify potential at-risk teens or preteens and address problems of violence, bullying, gangs and drugs that may affect teens and preteens in its programs. Through staff training, providing information about patterns of behavior and incidents and through direct intervention with individual youths and their families, the program provides an expertise that the park district, or any of the other taxing bodies, would be hard-pressed to provide on their own.
Prevention of violence and drug use among our teens should be a priority for all of us. Something well worth the small investment of park district dollars requested. Let's hope the park board will come to its senses and realize the importance of the Youth Interventionist Program, for both the services it has provided the district over these last 14 years, and for the potential it has to prevent, or at least address, these problems in the future.
Patrick Deady is a lawyer, River Forest resident and a former park board president%uFEFF