As the initial shock and horror of the June 22 murder of Peter D'Agostino slowly fades, residents of southeast Oak Park are continuing to take steps to deal with the issues raised by the tragedy.
Sunday afternoon some three dozen children and parents from the area were joined at Irving School by representatives from the mental health profession and the school system as well as members of the village's Police and Community Relations departments.
The meeting, which arose from a discussion between area resident Linda Cheatham and Community Relations Department's Cedric Melton following a July 7 community forum, sought to both empower and reassure area parents and their children as they struggle to work through their emotional responses to the killing and what it means to their neighborhood. Several in attendance last Sunday felt that the meeting did just that.
"I thought it was a great opportunity for our children and families to address some of their fears and find ways to put words to their feelings," said Camille Baxter, who attended the meeting with one of her two sons, 6-year-old Jason.
"I think we really accomplished our main objectives," said the village's Melton.
Baxter said that the D'Agostino's murder has engendered in parents and kids an array of feelings and concerns, many of which don't have easy or clear answers. "We're all kind of muddling through this and trying to figure out what to do," she said.
Katherine Goldberg, a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor from Family Service of Oak Park and River Forest, teamed with Dr. James Bruce to moderate the one-hour forum.
"Our intent was to give the children an opportunity to voice their feelings and thoughts about what happened," said Goldberg, who called the meeting "very productive." Goldberg expressed satisfaction that the process of addressing concerns appeared to have been started well in advance of Sunday's meeting.
"I was struck by how peaceful the environment was," she said. "Kids had (obviously) thought about this ahead of time."
Melton concurred, saying, "It clearly showed me that they've been processing what occurred."
With Irving Principal John Hodge and four teachers sitting among the parents and children, Bruce and Goldberg elicited questions from the audience.
"Some of the kids talked about how afraid they are," said Cheatham. "There were a lot of good exchanges."
"The dialogue flowed very, very well," said Goldberg. "It felt like it was reassuring to them."
A key part of that reassuring environment was the opportunity to hear information on how best to deal with any problem situations. To that end Oak Park Chief of Police Rick Tanksley not only addressed fears about safety, but offered specific tips on how to deal with potentially dangerous situations. Several attendees said that Chief Tanksley, who had to leave the meeting shortly before it ended to travel to an out-of-town conference, did an exceptional job of both easing safety concerns and educating people.
"I thought the chief did a fantastic job of communicating at a level (kids) could understand," said Baxter.
Cheatham expressed appreciation that Tanksley opted not to delegate his tasks to someone else, saying, "I was very grateful he didn't send someone else. He's such a strong presence and very good with the kids."
Cheatham also praised the Irving School staff who were present, saying that they will play a more central role once the new school year begins.
"I though (their presence) was important. They're a means of support for the kids," said Cheatham.
The next step in the process, said Melton, is another meeting sometime within the next two weeks to build on the ideas brought up at Sunday's meeting. Melton said that he received good input from surveys that were passed out prior to the meeting. Additional meetings are planned, he said, both for area kids, as well as any parents who wish to be involved in the planning process. Among the ideas being developed is a strengthening of the "McGruff" neighborhood crime watch program, and the compilation of comprehensive Block Directory that lists houses where kids can go if they perceive trouble.
Baxter said she intends to be at any future meetings. "Absolutely," she said. "It's just too important not to be."
Cheatham, who said her own kids have learned a good deal about personal safety, said that the developing series of meetings is having a positive effect in her neighborhood.
"It's creating a community spirit of safety," she said.