City, school officials debate solutions to skate park problems

Sean C. Morgan

Of The New Era

School District 55 officials met with city officials on Friday, Oct. 28, to talk about behavior problems at the skate park in the wake of a six drug-related arrests connected to the skate park and the corner of 15th and Long.

An undercover police officer was able to buy drugs within minutes of showing up at the skate park and the 15th and Long intersection, where high school students and others hang out during lunch and before and after school.

Possible solutions to some of the problems associated with the skate park include new signage, a camera and a school resource officer.

School district officials describe a variety of problems related to the use of the skate park, which is located to the east of the Central Office on district property. Among them are trash left behind in the Central Office parking lot, loitering around the Central Office, parking in the district office lot, and drug use, fighting, vandalism and smoking issues.

For example, School Board Chairman Scott Proctor said, when it’s hot, youths will gather on the business manager’s door step looking for shade under the awning there.

“So I think it would be nice to get some trees planted,” Supt. Larry Horton said.

When it was hot, City Manager Craig Martin said, he would find skaters underneath the skate park ramps seeking shade.

District officials are breaking up fights at times, Horton said. He asked whether those should be reported.

“At times, it’s an unsafe” area for the “good kids” dealing with the “bad influence,” Proctor said.

“I’m not aware of how much illegal drug activity is going on there,” Horton said.

In the police narcotics operation last month, police made two of six transactions at the skate park, Police Chief Bob Burford said. The police sense is that “we’re dealing with 15 to 20 percent of the problem,” Burford said.

Wherever groups gather, there will be a problem, he said. Ninety-five percent of the youths are no problem, but 5 percent will cause 95 percent of the problems.

“True, the park may be a magnet (for problems),” Burford said, but he noted that the problem is not confined to the skate park. Friday morning police responded to the Church of Christ at 18th and Long where a group of four or five were passing a marijuana pipe around. Police took the pot, but were unable to determine which person had it, so they could make no arrests.

“What bothered me the most was that you had so open a group passing it around,” Burford said. At times, during the police operation, youths at the skate park were “just screaming” across the park about drugs.

“Yesterday, when I left, there were probably 30 to 35 kids out there,” Horton said. “Maybe 10 were just talking. I’d rather have them doing it there because it’s semi-monitored.

“We need to get them using the park responsibly, and 80 percent of them do.”

Proctor and Horton asked if there was something the district could do to help. Horton suggested a surveillance camera that could be monitored at the Police Department.

“It would be a huge benefit,” Burford said.

Getting responsible adults in the park would also curb illegal activity and poor behavior, Horton said. “I can’t imagine they’d be selling dope right in front of someone that might report them.”

Surveillance was one of the main reasons he liked the location for the skate park in the first place, Martin said.

Burford would like to see park users be part of the solution.

Mayor Craig Fentiman said he talked to some park users.

“They thoroughly love it, but they made the comment about undesirables that show up,” Fentiman said. He asked them about policing themselves, and they said, “No, we’re scared.”

He agreed that a camera on the park would help, and the skaters he talked to also suggested a camera or adult presence at the park at all times.

District schools are teaching curriculum that instructs students how to report inappropriate behavior, Horton said.

Community Development Director Carol Lewis suggested locking the park up with a racquetball court-style system that allows only those who pay an annual fee to use it.

There has been talk of groups using the park, Lewis said ? sort of like a “Take Back Your Park” program.

“If there’s a problem, maybe we do need to do some punitive action, close it down for a time,” Burford said. “What it does, I believe, it gives an impetus for the ones that are good … a tool.”

In hindsight, the city should probably have shut down the park after its narcotics operation, Burford said. He hopes that would encourage those who behave responsibly to report crimes and problems when they see them.

School and city officials also talked about hiring a school resource officer. A resource officer would get to know students, who would be comfortable talking to the officer.

“We should put our money where our goal is,” Horton said. The district has a goal to reduce drug and tobacco use, and helping to pay for an officer and a camera would help.

Proctor thought the School Board would be supportive.

To address parking problems and maintain enough parking for school personnel, the city and district will put up signs making parking at the Central Office for district business only.

The group raised the topic of a closed campus at the high school. Martin explained that the high school would use a system of blue, yellow and red cards. Students would have to earn the blue card to be able to leave campus at lunch. A red card would mean they were not permitted to leave campus.

At the meeting were Lewis, Martin, Burford and Fentiman with the city and Horton and Proctor with the district.

According to Police Department records, police have responded to 45 calls to the skate park since it opened in July. Three persons have been arrested, including two in the narcotics operation. The other was arrested for trespassing after the park was closed.