By Dan Haley
In a drug bust on Harrison Street on Aug. 4, Oak Park police confiscated more than 200 electronic devices — cellphones, fancy calculators, iPods. You know, the stuff we've all been buying for our high school kids. And since the alleged lead miscreant arrested in this case was a student at OPRF High School, the question was immediately raised, "Is that my kid's $179 scientific calculator!?"
Now it is a few weeks later, and the cops are going through the dreary task of trying to match up the loot to its rightful owners. A week back when we first asked this question, Chief Rick Tanksley told our Megan Dooley that nine calculators had been linked to their owners. A few days later another local news outlet reported the cops were up to 20 matches.
Seemingly, there is a bit of a crime spree underway at OPRF (and I assume most every high school). The anecdotal evidence would suggest that is true, and according to school officials, discipline deans spend a lot of time dealing with the theft issue.
So why is it that when we asked the school how many thefts or reports of possession of stolen property had been reported at the school last year we were told 14?
No, I don't think Kay Foran, the longtime school spokesperson, was fibbing. I think 14 cases were officially reported via a system that is totally flawed, largely unthought, and filled with contradictory messages.
Let's start here: Everyone agrees there is an issue with drug use among our teens. The data we have tells us that Oak Park and River Forest teenagers drink more, smoke more pot and use other drugs at a higher pace than other high schoolers. Everyone agrees that petty theft of highly re-marketable items — electronic devices — is prime currency in drug dealing on even low levels of trade.
And so it seems obvious that documenting the quantity and the methods by which electronics disappear at the high school would be the starting point. Fourteen reported incidents at OPRF and more than 200 devices discovered in a single drug raid are not numbers that tell a logical story.
The high school's message to students is clear. You are responsible for your property. Don't leave your phones in your backpacks; don't carry them in your back pockets. That makes sense. Kids need to learn to be responsible. But if only 14 thefts were reported last year, then clearly the other half of the message has not been sent: If something is stolen, the school wants to know about it. Here's who you report it to.
The school has a large security staff — they'll need it this year trying to enforce the daffy half-closed campus policy. The Oak Park Police Department has multiple SROs —school resource officers — assigned full-time to the school.
Yet, Chief Tanksley told us last week that the few thefts reported to the school are not shared with the department. A student or parent would need to directly approach an SRO or the department to make that stolen iPhone register as a crime.
Clearly the cops and the school need to sit down and make a plan, articulate a message that a phone stolen from a backpack in English class is as much a concern as a phone stolen from a purse in a restaurant on Oak Park Avenue.
Thefts at the high school are tied to drug dealing at the high school. We've got to understand the scope of the problem before any aspect can be addressed. The key players — the school and the cops — need to put their shoulders to the wheel, not their heads in the sand.