City, school district working to stop park, bridge vandals

Sean C. Morgan

Sweet Home High School and city officials are taking steps and working together this school year to stop the ongoing problems with vandalism and litter around Weddle Bridge and Sankey Park and school attendance.

“We have kids skipping class,” said SHHS Principal Keith Winslow. “They’ll come to school and they’ll head over there, and they don’t come back.”

High school officials have locked the high school gates, but students just hop over the fences, he said.

The city has locked Weddle Bridge off and on in recent years, and this year, it’s locking gates at both ends of the bridge, said Laura Goodrich, city planner.

But the water’s so low in Ames Creek, the students can easily cross to Sankey Park, Winslow said. They also hang out under the bridge.

They’ll smoke pot and cigarettes or use e-cigarettes while there, he said.

Last year, high school attendance was 87 percent, Winslow said. Attendance should be above 90 percent. When students miss a class, it’s 82 minutes this year, that’s a large portion of their school day.

“The other thing is these kids are coming back into class, and they smell like marijuana,” Winslow said. “It’s illegal. It’s not healthy. We’re going to address it.”

The first week of school, the police responded and referred four students to the Linn County Juvenile Department for drugs, three for marijuana and one for prescription drugs, said Police Chief Jeff Lynn.

Drug charges lead to expulsion, Winslow said.

To start addressing the problem, to get students in their seats and to keep them from causing problems at Sankey Park, school officials have met with the municipal court judge and other city officials to develop a response. They’ll meet again this week.

The Municipal Court is behind the school, Winslow said. The truant officer from the Education Service District is also on board.

“We’re notifying parents much quicker,” Winslow said. The school sends a reminder to parents about the compulsory education law. If another problem arises, the school sets up a mandatory parent meeting and works out a plan with the parents.

If the parents don’t follow through with the plan, Winslow said, then the school will refer the family to the municipal judge. The school sends a checklist of the steps it has taken in an attempt to gain compliance.

The school will involve parents, and the judge will know that the court appearance isn’t the first time parents are hearing about their children’s attendance problems, he said.

Attendance is already improving, Winslow said. The school has processed about 20 students school officials have located at the park and around the bridge.

“Our goal is to say if you go over to Sankey, we’re going to nab you,” Winslow said.

The issue goes beyond high school students, he said. Some of the young people at the park are either dropouts or young adults.

“We’re acting,” Winslow said. “We have the backup to do it.”

Teachers are frustrated, Winslow said.

“We can’t teach the kids if they aren’t in the right frame of mind,” said Assistant Principal Mark Looney.

Said Winslow: “If they aren’t in a seat, we can’t turn our backs on this if we say we care about kids.”

Lynn said he appreciates that school officials are engaged.

“It’s going to take a community approach to deal with it. We’re encouraged this year by the few law enforcement calls we’ve had over to the bridge.”

The city has placed additional signs around the park and even under the bridge, Lynn said, and the Police Department is spending a little more patrol time at Sankey Park during the school day.

“What I want to see now is no more vandalism, damage to the bridge and littering,” Lynn said.

Youths are going to hang out somewhere, and they like to do it away from adults and parents, he said. The question is how to monitor them and mitigate the negative behavior. Each situation is different, and he doesn’t think a single answer applies.

Among parks officials, this effort began early this summer with volunteer work parties cleaning up the park, Goodrich said. The goal is to create a culture where people care about the park. If someone sees another person littering, he or she might be willing to say something.

Beyond the bridge, the city has had to pull damaged tables from the gazebo, and someone kicked out some of the gazebo siding.

“It’s just the select few causing the damage,” Goodrich said.

She would like to see social pressure help keep the park clean, she said, and the park needs to be an inviting place where people want to go, noting that when public eyes are watching, people are less likely to use drugs, damage the bridge or litter.

That’s the reason the city had “Movies in the Park” this summer and the reason for the Harvest Festival in October.

“Our hope is just to have it open,” Goodrich said. “Ultimately, it’s best just to change that behavior so we can keep that open and the community can enjoy it.”