A coalition of community groups and CAPS volunteers have been working with officials from the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Police 15th District to address ongoing problems with after-school violence in the South Austin area.
According to South Austin Coalition's Theresa Welch, there have been at least three major street fights around school dismissal time in the past six weeks, as well as numerous other smaller altercations. The first instance occurred Feb. 8 near Michelle Clark High School and May Elementary. During that incident, which involved dozens of young people, a young man described as 15 or 16 years old was beaten by at least three other teens outside of the SACCC offices at 342 S. Laramie, two blocks from the school. According to some witnesses SACCC officials spoke with, the teen was apparently trying to leave a street gang.
"Some of the kids we talked with about it said they were 'jumping him out of a gang,'" said Welch, who added that three young men jumped out of a car and began beating the boy with belts and fists and feet.
Welch said that the fights, including one last Friday, have involved as many as 100 teenagers, though identifying them has been difficult.
"Nobody's talking about who it was," said Welch Tuesday. Motive is also difficult to determine.
"It's hard to tell. It could be gang stuff. It could be some personal vendetta," said Welch. Several people say that cell phones have been an aggravating factor. Welch noted that one recent fight apparently stemmed from a girl being hit by her boyfriend, and then calling a relative on her cell phone.
Police agree that cell phones have added to the problem.
"[Last Friday] we heard kids using their cell phones, calling other kids, and saying, 'We need you to come here and help us fight,'" said Sgt. Allison Johnson of the 15th District CAPS office.
Apparently other teens are taking those calls seriously. SACCC's Welch said she and other security volunteers saw three young men sitting on the steps of the Mandell United Methodist Church at 5000 W. Congress around 2 p.m. last week as volunteers gathered to prepare for school dismissal.
"You could tell they didn't belong there," Welch said. "They looked kind of surprised to see all of us there. When we asked where they were from, they said Collins High School." Collins is located at 1313 S. Sacramento Drive, some 30 blocks southeast of the Michelle Clark location.
"We asked them what they were doing here, and they said they were picking up their cousin," said Welch.
School officials say they've assigned additional personnel to the area in response.
"We have extra safety and security people there," said CPS spokesman Mike Vaughn Wednesday. "The Local School Council and school relations people have been out there in yellow jackets. The idea is to get an adult presence out there."
However, not everyone agrees that the schools are doing everything they can. Sgt. Johnson said that she saw no Board of Education staff on hand last Friday afternoon when May School was dismissed.
"When May school let out, it was like a riot," said Sgt. Johnson. "It was outrageous. It was out of control."
Parental involvement is essential
Johnson, who said that CPS personnel were on hand the following Monday, stressed that the problem is not solely a police or school problem. Parental involvement, which she said has been near non-existent, is also crucial to addressing the problem.
"What would be an even bigger [help] would be if [parents] were out there after school," she said.
Johnson said that the area near Laramie and Harrison isn't the only Austin neighborhood experiencing problems with fights. But, she said, the Laramie and Harrison neighborhood has four schools within a 5-6 block area, all of which let their students out around 3 p.m. each afternoon.
"That's a lot of kids in one area," she said.
Violence has escalated
Last Monday saw the most serious incident to date. Just after 1:30 p.m., five people were injured when a fight near the corner of Laramie and Jackson escalated into armed violence. Two people, a 25-year-old male and a 30-year-old male, were treated for gunshot wounds at Loretto Hospital and released. Three teenagers were treated for stab wounds, including a 15-year-old girl who was stabbed in the left hand, and an 18-year-old man stabbed in the upper left back.
While it's not clear exactly what triggered that incident, Chicago Police Department spokesperson Officer Patrice Harper said Tuesday that the fight, or at least the use of weapons, was gang-related, involving members of the Four Corner Hustlers.
At the same time that police are attempting to tamp down after-school violence, they're continuing to suppress drug dealing activity by organized street gangs in the Austin neighborhood. On March 16, officers of the Narcotic and Gang Investigations Section (NAGIS) busted seven individuals during Operation Broken Eagle near Cicero Avenue and Van Buren. The operation was so named because of the eagle logo stamped on some of the tin foil wrappers used to contain sale quantities of the drugs. Those arrested include a 15-year-old juvenile, and police are seeking five others on arrest warrants. All are charged with either drug conspiracy or delivery of a controlled substance.
The drug operation, which police say brought in $2,500 a day, sold both heroin and cocaine. Broken Eagle investigators made a total of 14 undercover purchases, and seized more than $1,900 in drugs and $1,536 in cash.
Two men allegedly involved in that drug operation, Kenneth Adkins, 40, and Rickey Wheatley, 38, were paroled from the Jackson Correctional Center last spring and, according to Illinois Department of Correction records, each man sports at least one 5-pointed star tattoo, indicating Vice Lord affiliation. Adkins, who is on parole for forgery and drug convictions, is being held in Cook County Jail on $25,000 bond. Wheatley, who has four previous drug convictions as well as a weapons violation and conviction for Aggravated Battery/Great Bodily Harm, is being held without bond. Both men have April 8 court dates.
The following Wednesday, March 23, NAGIS operatives moved north and closed out Operation Stone Cut, which had targeted a Black P Stones' heroin and crack cocaine operation near Chicago Ave. and Latrobe. Police first began investigating the site 13 months ago, and conducted surveillance between February and May, 2004 and August and December, 2004. After making several undercover purchases, they seized $2,900 in heroin, and $660 in cocaine.
Eleven people were arrested and another eight charged in warrants, most for Criminal Drug Conspiracy. Among those in custody is Marvin Lamb, 38. Lamb, who has seven prior drug-related convictions on his record, was paroled from the Shawnee Correctional Facility last summer.
Police intend to continue their pressure in the 15th District, with the department's DUI Strike Force set to target drunk-driving and other quality of life problems in the 15th District starting Friday night and going through early Saturday morning.