By Terry Dean
The shooting death of a South Side Chicago teen was among the topics discussed by Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley, parents and students at a parent meeting at Oak Park and River Forest High School Feb. 12.
This wasn't the first time Tanksley has talked with families about helping steer kids away from trouble. But last week's talk at parent group APPLE's monthly meeting was at times more poignant than normal.
Tanksley was the main speaker at the meeting. The night's topic was about teaching kids how to make better decisions with respect to doing drugs, fighting, joining gangs and other struggles. About two dozen people attended, sitting and mostly listening inside OPRF's faculty cafeteria as the chief spoke.
He started out talking about Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old girl who was killed in Chicago a week after her school band performed at President Barack Obama's inauguration. Two male suspects, ages 18 and 20, were arrested and charged last Monday in her murder.
Tanksley spoke for about 20 minutes but began his talk with the murder charges from the previous day.
"I don't know if some of you were able to watch the funeral this past Saturday for Hadiya Pendleton," Tanksley asked, as several people in the audience nodded and said yes.
"Now we know people are innocent until proven guilty, but if these individuals are responsible for her murder, or will be convicted of her murder, they made a decision which is going to impact the rest of their life, possibly life in prison," Tanksley said.
Just two of those assembled were students. And though Tanksley had hoped for more kids to attend, he said he was fine with just directing his talk to these two young girls.
He went on to share some personal stories about his own, somewhat troubled childhood growing up in Chicago. Tanksley grew up with a single-parent mother in a row house at 13th and Racine in Chicago. By middle school-age, Tanksley said he was "bad and acting out." By the sixth grade, he was fighting constantly.
"I can remember from back in the day, I would get a report card, and on one side were your grades. And then on the other side they had this list of prohibited behaviors that if you engaged in you would get these checks. Talking in class, failure to turn in homework, failure to exercise self-control — my report card always had these checks," Tanksley said.
It was then that the young Tanksley realized that the good kids who behaved properly didn't have checks.
"I started to realize there was this correlation between doing well and not having checks, and doing poorly and having checks," he said.
But after Tanksley got into another fight his mother enrolled both he and his brother at a private school. She also gave him a stern warning, that this was his last chance. This, she told him, was his last opportunity and that if he kept making the same bad decisions, she would just "throw her hands up."
Tanksley said he started to make better decisions after that.
"I think I've said before, but if anybody had told me that these many years later that I would wind up in the position I'm in now, as chief of police, I would say that they were crazy," he said.
Tanksley's talk with the families soon turned into a discussion as he opened it up for questions.
One parent asked about how to get young boys in particular, including her own son, to open up about being bullied and ask for help. Kids, especially boys, the parent noted, don't want to be labeled a "snitch," which could lead to more bullying. And getting boys in particular tell about anything bad that's happening, the parent noted, is virtually impossible because of the "no snitching" rule.
Tanksley again referenced the Pendleton case, saying that in such cases there are many people who have information to help solve a crime but are afraid to come forward fearing retaliation from the perpetrators.
"It's difficult. This no snitching culture is prevalent," Tanksley said. "But, I guess I would pose the question: is it right, in this particular case, for a young girl to die, be murdered, and you know something about it and not come forward?
"Now there are ways to coming forward. You can come forward anonymously," Tanksley added, bringing it back to how to get kids to open up. "You have to have a strong relationship with your parents, or a teacher or some adult that you can go to and have these conversations, to feel comfortable to talk about some of the struggles you're going through.
"But that no snitching and not wanting to tell, we had that back in the day too. But it does take a strong individual to take a stand," Tanksley said.
Next week: More discussion on bullying and Tanksley's take on gangs at Oak Park's borders.