Programs try to increase sense of community

Nathalie Tadena

As questions of safety in Chicago’s public schools garner national interest, Evanston has improved and expanded its programs to deter youth violence, school and city officials said. Evanston Township High School has a “strong commitment” to ensuring the school’s 3,000 students feel comfortable with one another, said ETHS Superintendent Eric Witherspoon.

“The main concept is to create a culture of community and safety within the school,” Witherspoon said. “We want it to be an environment where people feel welcome and respected, where they feel important to the school, to teachers and to their peers here.”

To accomplish this, ETHS’ Safety Department conducts myriad programs, many of which place community members and students in mentoring roles. For example, ETHS offers a Positive Presence Program, where adults in the community have an opportunity to interact with students at school. Under the school’s Restorative Justice program, implemented in August 2008, students are trained to help their peers identify constructive ways to solve personal problems and avoid future conflicts. There are also several individual mediation and counseling resources, Witherspoon said, noting a social worker is assigned to every student when they enter school.

“When people feel that safe and comfortable, they will look out for one another, then look out for the whole school,” Witherspoon said.

The number of behavioral referrals and suspensions have declined from recent years, a change that can be partially attributed to the school’s breadth of disciplinary practices, he said.

“We do a really, really good job,” said Rachel Hayman, president of the District 202 Board of Education. “I’ve graduated three children of my own from ETHS. I did not fear for their safety, and I think we’ve only made improvements along the way.”

The Evanston Police Department also plays a role in promoting school safety. EPD stations one liaison officer full-time at ETHS and has additional officers assigned to areas around other Evanston/Skokie District 65 schools during the school day and after dismissal, EPD Cmdr. James Pickett said.

“You’ll always see our presence at the high school,” he said. “If something’s going on, we can send more officers over.”

Although EPD officers are in “constant contact with students,” Pickett said violence has not been a major problem in Evanston.

In comparison, Chicago’s public school system was thrust in the national limelight when 16-year-old Derrion Albert was pummeled to death with wooden planks last month after unknowingly wandering into a fight between rival gangs after school. Last year, 34 Chicago public school students were killed.

But no matter the city, school safety is always a concern.

“People look at Evanston relative to Chicago,” said Sol Anderson, Evanston’s youth coordinator. “We’re a much smaller community. We don’t have the same number of youth who get shot every year as they would in Chicago. We don’t have the numbers to make it look bad.”

Though many people perceive Evanston as an affluent community, Anderson said the city may have more safety concerns than other North Shore suburbs, noting that a 21-year-old Chicago man was shot and killed in Evanston in August and an Evanston man was fatally stabbed in September.

The city organizes a Youth Council, comprised of about 15 Evanston teenagers who meet twice a month to organize programs that address youth needs in the community.”Throughout the country, we’ve tried to solve youth problems without taking youth input into account,” Anderson said. “We need to really give them a chance to change their community instead of them waiting to lead the community when they’re older.”

Now in its third year, the Youth Council has tackled issues of violence in the past by organizing discussion forums, Anderson said.

“We really want to do things that galvanize the community around the idea of non-violence,” Anderson said.

In addition to painting a peace mural outside Boocoo Cafe, 1823 Church St., Anderson said the Youth Council hopes to organize a gun drive to encourage young adults to turn in guns they own. Such neighborhood endeavors are important to deter violence, he said.

“If you don’t feel a connection – that common thread with someone – it’s easier to pull a trigger, fight someone or steal,” Anderson said. “You need to re-instill that sense of community.”

However, that sense of community has to be “nurtured every day, ” especially among teenagers, Witherspoon said.

“All human beings need to develop skills to interact well with one another,” the superintendant said. “The high school age is a time of growing and developing – it’s better for students to learn these tools as they enter into young adulthood.”

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