With an aggressive plan to be proactive ahead of what they fear could be an increasingly violent spring, more than a dozen Oak Park and River Forest officials gathered Monday to head off a local increase in youth violence. While saying Oak Park and River Forest do not have a gang problem, officials said there has been a resurgence of street gang-inspired behavior.
The 13 officials, representing three school districts, two police forces, township youth, the NAACP and clergy, assembled Monday at the urging of John Williams, Oak Park Township Youth Services director, to broadcast their concerns.
"We asked you to come because we need your help," said Williams addressing local reporters. Violent and uncivil behavior among a relatively small group of Oak Park male teens has progressed along a predictable arc over the past year, he said. It culminated Saturday, Dec. 4 in a gang beat down that ended when the victim pulled a gun and fired what was both literally and figuratively a warning shot. The youth was arrested and charged with several weapons violations, but that was only the beginning of what promises to be a concerted and ongoing response by officials in both Oak Park and River Forest.
Williams and his colleagues from the Youth Services' Gang and Drug Task Force teamed up with Sgt. Jacque Conway and Juvenile Officer Phyliss Howard of the Oak Park police to visit the homes of every juvenile involved in the Dec. 4 incident.
Officials knocked on 15 doors last Wednesday and Thursday night, visiting with the parents or guardians of 10 of 15 juveniles. Letters were left for those parents not at home.
One key fact that came out of the home meetings was that the kids weren't communicating with their elders.
"Few of the kids had shared information (about the fight) with their parents," said Williams.
Williams said the delinquent behavior has progressed over several years from verbal posturing and one on one fights up to increasing group conflicts. In addition, during junior high school, kids gain access to drugs, and as they move into high school, their drug activity becomes increasingly organized.
Officials also noted that acting out behavior is occurring earlier than ever before.
Joanne Trahanis, principal of Roosevelt Middle School in River Forest, said that she is seeing negative behaviors "younger and younger."
"We used to see it in seventh and eighth grade. Now we're seeing it in fifth and sixth grade."
Williams, who estimates the number of delinquent youth seriously involved at around 30, said that until now, the behavior officials have seen is "Knucklehead behavior with criminal behavior attached to it."
In the past year however, Williams said, there has been increasingly serious play involved. BB gun vandalism has increased, and for some time now, he said, there have been increasing instances of individuals shooting at each other.
"They're playing at drive by [shootings]," said Williams.
Officials have been aware of the problem for some time, he said.
"Literally every government body is doing things to try to deter delinquent behavior in the village," said Williams. "I don't know that (all these programs for youth) happen in every town," he said in referencing community policing activities, school resource police officers in each school district, the "Friday Night Place" program at Fellowship Christian Church, poetry slams sponsored by the library, the park district's new skate park, teen job fairs sponsored by the village, Fraternal Order of Police basketball nights, and others. Still, he said, the efforts are not reaching all teens.
Government involvement, most everyone at the meeting agreed, is not enough.
Village of Oak Park Community Relations Manager Cedric Melton said that parents are the key. Unfortunately, at present, they're a missing key, he said.
"Parents?#34;that's who need to be at this table today," he said.
"These are parents who are isolated, who need help," said Melton.
Lack of parental involvement is a real problem, according to Oak Park and River Forest High School Superintendent/Principal Susan Bridge. She expressed frustration at the lack of parental support for their efforts. OPRF has suspended 32 students so far this school year. Of those, 17 have since received expulsions held in abeyance. A common thread in all of them, Bridge said, is that the student's parents see school officials as adversaries, not partners in their child's education. She noted that OPRF has a total of 28 programs designed to deal with potential problems at the high school. Some parents, though, simply aren't buying into it.
"Our frustration comes when, despite our best efforts during seventh and eighth grade and freshman year, families don't always support what we're trying to do."
Too often, said Bridge, parents are adversarial, particularly when their children are facing disciplinary proceedings.
"Sometimes it's hardest to acknowledge they need help (at the point where) the system is disciplining them," Bridge said.
However, Rev. Wiley Samuels of Fellowship Community Services on Madison Street, said that many of those parents simply don't feel a apart of the system.
"A lot of parents don't feel a part of Oak Park," he said. "They don't feel valued or respected by the high school."
That sense of separation, Samuels said, works against a solution. "We need to enhance, encourage, educate and empower our kids," he said. "If you don't feel valued, you won't do well."
Bridge said that the imposition of discipline doesn't have to end a parent's involvement with the high school.
"That one disciplinary moment doesn't have to destroy our relationship," she said.
There's more at risk of being destroyed than relationships, however. Oak Park police, who must step in when disruptive behavior becomes criminal, hope that the problem can be successfully handled without their involvement, or that of the court system. To that end, Deputy Chief Robert Scianna stressed that the police are willing to cut juveniles a little slack up to a point.
"We're doing everything we can do to intervene with these kids and get them over the hump," he said. The safety of all involved comes first, though.
"We all feel that we can't turn a blind eye to what's playing out in front of us," he said. "There's more physical confrontations going on than ever before." Should that escalate, he said, more forceful intervention will follow.
"Unfortunately, when we intervene, it's time for the criminal justice system," Scianna said. Most juveniles, he added, don't fully appreciate what that truly means for them and their futures.
"You catch a felony (conviction) at 17, and your horizons have been cut in half."
"Does Oak Park have a gang problem?" That was the question Oak Park Deputy Police Chief Robert Scianna was asked.
"No," Scianna answered. There is, he said, no active gang presence in Oak Park. That doesn't mean it can't happen here, he added. All that it would take is for Oak Park to ignore the warning signs, something his department doesn't intend to let happen.
Police, educators and Oak Park Township youth officials were quick to recognize those signs and respond to an incident on Saturday night, Dec. 4. In that incident, an Oak Park juvenile was attacked by three other juveniles near Chicago Avenue and Austin Boulevard around 10:45 p.m. After being kicked and punched, the victim pulled a handgun and fired a warning shot into the air to scare off his assailants. Scianna said all those involved knew each other and that there had been bad blood between several of them.
A 32-year veteran cop, Scianna has experience with gangs, and defines a gang as a criminal enterprise, with a hierarchy and expectations of members. By that definition, the young Oak Parkers involved in recent incidents are not gang members.
Whether they associate with gang members, or aspire to membership is another question, one Scianna admits he can't answer.
But Scianna and his colleagues want to send active gang-bangers and any Oak Park youth thinking of emulating them a simple message: "That's unacceptable in Oak Park."
Scianna, who was one of 13 officials present at a Monday morning meeting called by Township Youth Services Director John Williams, said he and his department learned a hard lesson nine years ago. Back in August, 1995, Oak Park did have a gang problem, according to then Chief Joseph Mendrick, with at least 15-20 Oak Park juveniles engaged in what was described then as a "continuing gang conflict." Fueled by adolescent masculinity and the involvement of two notorious West Side street gangs, that conflict turned tragically lethal after a week of escalating violence.
A gang confrontation at Oak Park and River Forest High School on Aug. 24, 1995 led to the arrest of an OPRF student affiliated with the Four Corner Hustlers.
The following night at Percy Julian Junior High School, Mafia Insane Vice Lords out of Maywood cruised the area around Percy Julian and spotted several Hustlers. They fired four shots at them, but hit no one. A while later, several of the Hustlers who had been shot at spotted two Vice Lords getting off a bus near Lombard and Madison. One of the Vice Lords, 19-year-old Marcus Mance of Chicago, was knocked unconscious with a blow to the head from a glass bottle. He lingered in the ICU at Loyola Medical Center in Maywood and died on Sept. 11. Police arrested a juvenile and two young men in relation to Mance's murder two days later. Willie Trotter, 19, of Oak Park, was eventually convicted of murder in that killing, and sentenced to 36 years in prison.
Scianna said police don't intend to miss the warning signs this time around.
"We reacted after the fact in 1995," Scianna acknowledged Monday. "We learned a lesson then. We're trying to get out in front of it this time." But that will require that the young men the village is trying to reach listen to the warnings. If they don't, said Scianna, the alternatives will get harder.
"If they don't accept the help being offered, then we'll do it the other way," he said bluntly.
"We are not going to give up Oak Park to thugs."