Sitting shoulder to shoulder, but wrestling with their own perceptions, stakeholders representing huge swaths of the community wracked their brains over which values are most important to helping a child in Forest Park grow into a well-rounded adult. Voices from churches, schools, law enforcement, the park district and local government each offered a short list of traits.
There were echoes, but there were also differences.
Michael Kelly, a sociology researcher with Loyola University, believes he can help fill the gaps.
“I’m very interested in a longer-term relationship if that’s something the community is interested in,” Kelly said.
Standing in front of more than 25 of Forest Park’s most civic-minded residents on Feb. 18, Kelly was trying to get a sense of what community leaders believe has prompted an onslaught of unruly teenage behavior. During a similar discussion in early December, Mayor Anthony Calderone blamed teens’ overall lack of respect for causing “serious problems” that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Missing from last week’s discussion, said Kelly, are the teens. To capture that voice, Kelly plans to work with area schools to survey kids on life in Forest Park.
The survey is designed to help sociologists and community leaders get a handle on what may be some of the more glaring problems in a neighborhood, as well those qualities that should be emphasized. How often kids are exposed to drugs and violence, and whether they feel safe at home and in school are questions that will be asked. The survey will also attempt to uncover the societal and psychological reasons that such conditions exist.
Kelly’s work in the community is funded through a grant and will not cost any of the local agencies.
Scott Gaalaas, president of the West Cook YMCA, said a child’s inappropriate behavior is often a symptom of some other conflict. Others in the room nodded in agreement with Gaalaas, though there were plenty of opinions on what those root causes might be.
Commissioner Mark Hosty pointed to a weakened family structure as his primary concern. The burden of instilling values is being pushed elsewhere, he said.
“It’s falling on the school district, which has the most intervention with the kids,” Hosty said.
Roy Sansone, a commissioner with the park district, said simply that “there’s no respect” for adults. He pointed to a recent fight outside of the middle school in which the principal sustained a broken nose when she attempted to intervene. When he was a boy, said Sansone, the fight would have ended as soon as kids spotted an adult.
Others in attendance chimed in that the public is generally more aware of when kids go astray and that there isn’t enough publicity for those involved in more worthwhile activities. That opinion wasn’t unanimous.
“The good is out there, too; it’s what people choose to focus on,” District 91 Superintendent Lou Cavallo said.
The District 91 school board recently voted to pay staff members in each building to generate press releases that will promote student achievement. In part, that effort is designed to combat negative perceptions of the district.
The survey Kelly intends to administer is designed to focus on positive influences within the community, he said. Such assets, described as “social capital,” are those things that help children feel important and connected to their environment. In fact, Kelly said that if Forest Park decides on a strategy to curb disruptive and aggressive behavior in teens, a crucial part of that should be to reward and reinforce the positive rather than harping on the negative.
The survey is expected to poll students in District 91 as well as those attending area high schools. The Forest Park Public Library also offered to serve as a central location where kids can take the online questionnaire. Kelly said he expects to review the data with community leaders in mid June.
“To me, this is just a first step in a long process that we’ve got to go through,” park district Director Larry Piekarz said.