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Oak Park's Gang Prevention/Intervention Program Demonstrates Its Effectiveness

The street gang problem was just beginning to emerge in Oak Park and neighboring River Forest when the Gang Prevention/Intervention Program was created in 1995. While no particular 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.

Broad Intergovernmental Agreement

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 entities 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 village and township governments, school districts, park districts and public library districts which serve Oak Park and River Forest -- held their first intergovernmental meeting. In it, two members of the Task Force presented a detailed plan to address the emerging gang activity. The same two members worked with several volunteers, including police officers, members of the clergy, board members, parents and youth, to conduct interventions with everyone involved in the shooting and beating incidents -- approximately 24 young people and their families. The Task Force itself held a series of meetings to educate residents, particularly parents of teens, on gang presence and warning signs, and published a gang awareness booklet.

The Interventionists

The intergovernmental initiative produced an agreement which 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. Trained and supervised by Oak Park Township Youth Services, an agency which provides a variety of programs and services for young people, the interventionists' 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 cover:

Crisis Intervention. The interventionists have worked hard to build trusting relationships with teens who are at risk and often are the first to learn of an impending violent situation or of a student who may be fighting or displaying weapons, gang signals or colors. In these cases, the staff intervenes directly with the participants or calls in a crisis team. Program leaders report that this approach has averted dozens of potentially violent incidents in the last year alone. The interventionists also respond to school officials needing assistance with crises related to gangs and school violence.

Identification of Pertinent Issues. The interventionists meet with targeted young people and their family members, and bring in professional counselors when needed, to identify issues that have triggered anti-social behavior. These can include a variety of core problems such as alienation from school, drug use within the family, and the lack of parental supervision.

Identification of Appropriate Services. The interventionists work with the community's network of social service agencies to identify the most appropriate services to meet the needs of the targeted youth and his or her entire family. They then bring together the resources required to address individual and family issues, including parenting skills, conflict resolution, job training and substance abuse counseling. Finally, they continue to track the youth and their families through the communities' various support systems.

The Results

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 program's deterrent effect on the at-risk teens who have been referred to the interventionists. In 1995, there were 14 gang-related incidents, including the drive-by shooting. Incidents dropped to two in 1996, two in 1997, and to just one in1998. And juvenile crime overall has been reduced from year to year: Between 1997 and 1998, juvenile arrests dropped 27 percent.

To date, the interventionists have handled 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. Through their experience they 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."

Additional information is available from John Williams, Director of Oak Park Township Youth Services, at (708) 445-2725, ext. 130.

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