Wayward youth in Forest Park are causing “serious problems” that simply didn’t exist 20 or 30 years ago when adolescents had more respect for authority, said Mayor Anthony Calderone, and it’s time the community takes notice.
During a meeting of village council members, school officials, the park district and a representative of the Forest Park Youth Commission, the mayor encouraged the group to work together on the issue. The Dec. 1 meeting was a first step intended to spark a community-wide discussion and acknowledge that something needs to be done.
“We’re not accustomed to having kids flip you off,” Calderone said of preserving the village’s idyllic charms.
No one at the table disagreed with the mayor’s premise, and representatives from each body confirmed that when teens act out in inappropriate ways it disrupts the work of their respective organizations. The rub, however, will come in determining how best to address the needs of these children, their families and the community at large. There were doubts, too, as to how effective their efforts would be.
“The kids who want to be bad are going to be bad,” Erin Parchert, superintendent of recreation at the park district, said.
Parchert and youth commission members Rachell Entler and Mary Win Connor offered front-line accounts of the types of programming and activities that adolescents and pre-teens tend to respond to. The trick, they said, is in offering activities that allow the children to make decisions. Athletics, for example, are most popular when the kids are allowed to choose teams and play pickup games rather than follow the rules of a sports league or adhere to a coach’s practice schedule.
Connor, who also serves on the District 91 school board, estimated that 80 percent of Forest Park Middle School students are unsupervised during the hours immediately after school. These latchkey kids are part of the target audience discussed Monday evening.
“You take a kid who’s unattended by a parent who’s overwhelmed by work,” Commissioner Mark Hosty said. “How do we fit into that?”
The idea of a teen center in Forest Park, a central location where kids and their families can access a variety of programs, has been kicked around for years. Everyone spoke favorably of opening such a facility, but the logistics of making it an attractive option may be daunting. Funding, staffing and location were also mentioned as potential hurdles.
Officials also stressed the need to include parents, possibly offering instructional courses.
Those involved in the discussion largely agreed they need a better sense of what kids might be interested in. Representatives from both the park district and the youth commission said they’ve canceled programs due to lack of interest, and as the children get older it can be tougher to pique their interests. Basketball, for example, is hugely popular but as kids approach high school they seem less inclined to turn out for park district and youth commission games.
“I think we really need to look closely as to why it is these programs seem to fade away when they get closer to the eighth-grade,” Commissioner Marty Tellalian said.
The youth commission and the school district plan to survey students in time for another meeting in early February. Using the survey information, stakeholders hope to gain a clearer sense of which direction they ought to be headed. The municipality and the school district will also look to sociologists at Loyola University who have expressed an interest in working with Forest Park. That relationship could also produce grant money that would be applied toward various projects.
The village will also contact other interest groups and extend an invitation to the next meeting, which was loosely scheduled for early February. The public library, area churches, the West Cook YMCA, parents, middle school students and administrators in District 209 are among those who will be contacted.