When, late in the summer of 1995 there was a drive-by shooting outside the old Percy Julian Junior High, and a street fight followed along Madison toward village hall and left a young man badly beaten, there was shock and horror in town. While the possibility of such gang violence had been rumored over the months previous, this was a disturbing first for Oak Park.
To its credit, the full strength and determination of Oak Park, and in a genuine way of River Forest, was brought to bear and terrific things happened.
The Gang and Drug Task Force was re-launched with wide support. Township Youth Services, under the true leadership of John Williams, created the remarkable Youth Interventionist program which blew up all notions of helplessness as it went face-to-face with teens and their often troubled families. The cops got better. The schools got beyond denial. The village got back in the community relations business after years of staying hands-off when neighbor-to-neighbor tensions arose.
It has been an accomplishment worthy of the innovation and vision Oak Park is noted for.
And Monday morning in the board room of Oak Park Township, flanked by some dozen Oak Park and River Forest leaders, John Williams told the local papers it isn't working anymore. Youth violence is up across the village, across Harlem, across age ranges, across the schools, the streets.
That's the bad news. The good news is that we know it isn't working before there is a 17-year-old corpse next to a school. We know about it, and can attempt to renew the fix, because of the strong, concerned intelligence network that has been built by all these entities over the past decade. Everyone is connected. The schools, the cops, the social services.
Unlike in Iraq, we have good intelligence, and it will make a pre-emptive strike against this complex situation winnable.
Listening though on Monday morning, it was startling and discouraging. School leaders talk about "alliances" forming in fourth grade, kids coming back from summer vacation "organized" in some new and worrisome ways. Last year's oversized batch of eighth grade "knuckleheads" from District 97 is giving Dr. Susan Bridge migraines at OPRF. Drugs are now being bought and sold by more organized and profit-focused Oak Park-based groups. Real guns, BB guns and look-alike toy guns are giving police deep concern about kid safety and cop safety.
While Deputy Police Chief Robert Scianna wasn't ready Monday to say Oak Park has a gang problem?#34;a vestige of the denial issue in my mind?#34;he came close. "We don't have a gang problem because of the people in this room," he said. "We have the potential for it absolutely. We are surrounded by hard-core gang problems. Our kids are looking outside Oak Park. But Oak Park is in control of its own destiny, unlike other communities. And we are going to step up right now."
In the wake of a gun incident a week ago, Williams and two Oak Park police sergeants made 15 home visits over two evenings to the families of young men involved or on the periphery of that near-miss. Each one of those visits was targeted at a person on a short list of some 20 to 30 males?#34;all male, mostly African-American?#34;that most worry Williams and the police.
That piece of it tells us the most grievous problem is narrow but very deep. The potential for it, though, to multiply and extend, for the verbal abuse bouncing off high school hallways, for the tough guys' attitudes to reach lower grade levels, is real.
The cold winter, everyone agreed Monday, is the time to act to avoid spring problems.