CITY OF OAK PARK
The Gang Prevention/Intervention Program was established in 1995 to address the threat of street gangs in Oak Park and neighboring River Forest and the victimization of both young gang members and local residents by gang activity and the violence it often produces. The gang problem was just beginning to emerge when the program started. While no gangs had claimed Oak Park or River Forest as territory, several violent incidents had been attributed to gangs, and in August 1995 the community had its first . and so far, only . drive-by shooting. This incident, which occurred at a junior high school, was followed by the gang-related beating and subsequent death of a teenager a few blocks away.
A Drug and Gang Task Force formed in 1993 includes representatives of the local school districts, churches, service agencies, the youth township, civic organizations, and the Village of Oak Park. s Community Relations Department. As a group they represent 22 governmental and private sector institutions within Oak Park and River Forest and include 11 separate local taxing bodies. Within a month of August. s violent events, these taxing bodies . including local governments, school districts, park districts and public library districts which serve Oak Park and River Forest . held their first intergovernmental meeting. The agreement which emerged authorized the pooling of funds by the 11 bodies to support the hiring, in August 1996, of two full-time interventionists to work with young people and their families.
In the meeting, two members of the Task Force presented a 15-point plan to address the emerging gang activity and, as the intergovernmental agreement was being developed, the two members worked with several volunteers . police officers, members of the clergy, board members, parents and youth, among them . to conduct interventions with everyone involved in the shooting and beating incidents; this included approximately 24 young people and their families. The Task Force itself held a series of meetings to educate residents . in particular, parents of teens . on gang presence and warning signs, and published a gang awareness booklet. It also developed a strategic plan and short- and long-term goals with recommendations for action.
The interventionists hired for the Gang Prevention/Intervention Program are trained and supervised by Oak Park Township Youth Services, an agency which provides a variety of programs and services for young people. Their mission is to intervene directly in the lives of school-age teens suspected of gang involvement, confront their anti-social behavior, and identify alternative activities appropriate to their needs. Local school administrators and police departments refer students they have identified as being at high risk for joining gangs. Reasons for referral range from weapons possession and defacing property with gang graffiti to battery or assault charges stemming from a gang-related confrontation. Once arrested, individuals are automatically referred to the program by the police. Additionally, through an arrangement with the Cook County Juvenile Probation Department, juvenile court judges mandate participation in the program as a condition of probation.
The interventionists. responsibilities fall into three major areas:
Local officials have seen a reduction in the number of gang-related incidents reported to the police since the program. s inception and credit the interventionists. work with the at-risk teens referred to them. In 1995, there were 14 gang-related incidents, including the drive-by shooting. In both 1996 and 1997, there were two incidents, and through 1998 there has been just one. To date, the interventionists have handled more than 90 cases, nearly all of which involve several family members in addition to the youth, and up to 18 community agencies, organizations, schools or volunteers.
Over the past two years the interventionists have identified several factors common to the cases, in particular: the lack of a stable, supervising adult presence in the youths. lives; involvement with a negative peer group; and substance abuse by the individual or within the family. To be effective, they believe, it is necessary to address the needs of the entire family, to go beyond the school environment, and to achieve early intervention through a variety of institutions . many of them outside of law enforcement . such as social service agencies and support systems. They advise that law enforcement agencies must play a leadership role, working with schools to assure that a continuum of needed resources is available. Finally, they believe the program has demonstrated that violence prevention must become an intrinsic part of the regular school curriculum, and that resources must be made available to support violence prevention efforts that begin early in a child. s life.
The original intergovernmental agreement creating the intervention/prevention program covered a two-year period. It was renewed in 1998 with a third interventionist . one with expertise in substance abuse and its link to youth violence . being added. To supplement its local support, the program was recently awarded funds by the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, Department of Human Services, and Criminal Justice Authority.
Says Oak Park. s Village President Barbara Furlong, "I. m excited by the concept of the program, thrilled that it is working, and proud that everyone, including taxing bodies in Oak Park and River Forest, pulled together to make it happen."
Contact: John Williams, Director, Oak Park Township Youth Services, (708) 445-2725, ext. 130
The United States Conference of Mayors
J. Thomas Cochran, Executive Director
Copyright ©1999, US Conference of Mayors, All rights reserved.