A fight between a crowd of teenagers in front of a high school-area restaurant Jan. 31 was the result of a grudge, say police and township youth intervention officials.

Last Tuesday some two dozen youths were directly or indirectly involved in an altercation outside Tasty Dog, 708 Lake St., a restaurant especially popular with students. Witnesses say that about ten teens approached four other teens sitting outside the restaurant and attacked them.

One of the assailants reportedly said to an Oak Park juvenile sitting with three friends, “My brother has a problem with you,” then began striking the juvenile.

The fight briefly involved several other juveniles in the area, police said, before the youths fled throughout the surrounding neighborhood.

“We initially had some concerns,” said Township Youth Services executive director John FS Williams Friday. “We talked about it on Wednesday and Thursday and Friday after it happened.” However, Williams is convinced that the incident stemmed from angry words between two teenagers “awhile back.”

“It’s nothing systemic or gang-related,” he said.

“It was typical of the type of disturbance we get around the high school involving a bunch of former students and current students,” said Oak Park Deputy Chief of Police Bob Scianna. “Somebody messed with someone else, and the guy’s big brother showed up to stick up for him.”

Though the incident proved not to be involve gangs, officials responsible for monitoring and dealing with youth problems remain vigilant. The township’s youth interventionists and Oak Park police were kept busy last fall after bad blood between two south Oak Park groups with loose gang affiliations led to several skirmishes and one group arming itself with baseball bats.

And the fight highlights an ongoing source of concern to village officials, from the trustees to the police.

Police released statistics last month showing historic lows in crime during 2005 crime rate. However Police Chief Rick Tanksley acknowledged that the offenses of aggravated assault and battery had increased 57 percent between 2004 and 2005, from 37 to 58 instances. Those increases, he said, were largely driven by violence between the village’s youth, with 61 percent of cases involving juveniles, and juveniles instigating 55 percent of all assaults and batteries.

Tanksley was questioned briefly by village trustees during the Jan. 17 village board meeting regarding his approach to the youth violence problem. Tanksley said police are currently addressing the problem with increased early intervention in the middle schools and high school, as well as with resident beat officers. An adult youth detective has also been assigned.

Police are also addressing problems with Chicago youth who commit assaults and batteries in the village. The Oak Park department has joined with Chicago police as partners with several West Side social services and a minister’s coalition to help “develop community service opportunities for Chicago youth arrested in Oak Park.”

“Early intervention is what is needed,” said Tanksley. “And, when necessary, taking a hard line.”

The township’s Williams will be able to focus more intently on youth issues after spending significant time over the past several months dealing with the process of re-applying for renewal of a two-year agency funding cycle that begins July 1.

That funding comes from 11 local taxing bodies in Oak Park and River Forest. The village of Oak Park will fund the largest share of that Youth Intervention budget, 28 percent, or $62,000 of $220,395 next year, and nearly $67,000 out of $236,065 in 2008. Oak Park’s elementary and high school districts supply 12 percent each.

Trustee Geoff Baker said Monday that he’s concerned that statistics appear to indicate that the age at which young people are turning to violence to deal with challenges is getting lower.

“We ought to be able to figure out a way to address this issue,” Baker said.

Baker also expressed concern that people may feel that the issue of youth violence is something that will be solved through the efforts of a handful of village agencies. While expressing great admiration for the township youth intervention staff, Baker said Williams can’t do the job alone.

“John Williams does a fantastic job,” he said. He’s a great resource. But he’s not the only answer.”

Baker said his approach to the problem is to engage both youth and adults.

“I would urge people to act,” said Baker, who hopes rising statistics don’t lead people to fear the village’s youth.

“You have to engage kids. You don’t have to get up in their faces. But you have to [relate] to them,” he said. “We all have an obligation to make it better. It’s everybody[‘s challenge], it’s all 53,000 people [in Oak Park].”

That includes the local media, added Baker, who urged coverage of the issue through the spring and summer, rather than coverage of just one incident.

“Make it an ongoing series,” he said.

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