Proviso Township High School District 209 Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart addresses a forum on school and community safety July 16. Seated are Broadview Deputy Police Chief Kevin Wagner, Sgt. Tom Kostka and Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone.JEAN LOTUS/Staff

An anonymous hotline, school uniforms, parent volunteers and reviving the district’s peer mediation program were some of the audience suggestions generated July 16 at a School and Community Safety Forum held at Proviso Math and Science Academy.

But attendance was sparse at the event. The handful of audience members in the largely empty auditorium at PMSA were outnumbered by police and village representatives from nine of the district’s 10 feeder communities, D 209 school board members and Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart.

The forum was prompted by student fighting incidents involving both Proviso East and West high schools last school year, Collins-Hart said.

Attending from Forest Park were Mayor Anthony Calderone, Police Sgt. Steve Zanoni and Officer Michael O’Connor. Also attending were Maywood Community Police Officer Percy Allen, Melrose Park Deputy Police Chief Michael Castellan, Hillside Police Chief Joseph Lukazek, Bellwood Director of Public Safety Andre Harvey, Broadview Deputy Chief Kevin Wagner and Sgt. Tom Kostka. Westchester Village President Sam Pulia attended as well as Berkeley Police Chief Dale Gustafson and Stone Park Police Chief Chris Panini and Sgt. Kevin Flowers.

Calderone was the official who pointed out that unruly student problems were not originating in Forest Park-based PMSA. He said Forest Park had pulled its dedicated officer off the PMSA beat after a couple of years, since the school was not generating student conflicts to warrant the manpower.

But the story was different for Proviso East and West high schools and the communities they inhabit.

“We always say between 8:30 and 3 p.m. at school we keep the lid on,” said Collins-Hart. “But we know that what starts in the schools can go into the community and what starts in the community can go into the schools.”

School fighting has always existed, law enforcement officials said. But the age of student cell phone videos, Twitter and Facebook has brought it to a greater awareness.

Fight at Proviso West

Hillside Police Chief Joseph Lukazek downplayed the back-to-back student fights in the cafeteria at Proviso West High School in Hillside February 3 and 4.

Eighteen students were arrested, officers in tactical uniforms who were training nearby arrived at the school, giving the appearance of a SWAT team responding and there were allegations of gang affiliations among some brawlers. But Lukazek still insisted it was just a high school fight.

“There are fights in high school, and always have been. It was a fight. In a high school,” he said.

He criticized Chicago television stations which broadcast violent scenes taken from student cellphones and posted on You Tube.

“The media likes to take a little story and make a big deal of it,” he said.

Lukazek backed up his claims by saying that crime in Hillside was dramatically down.

“We used to have 62 to 85 arrests a year of serious hardcore gangbangers, and we don’t have that anymore.” The chief credited the district’s busing system for getting students away from the school promptly. “The bus service program has been phenomenal,” he said.

Maywood brawl

Talk turned to the May 31 after-school brawl that took place in the streets of Maywood on the last day of school around 9:30 a.m. involving Proviso East students and others.

Then-Maywood Police Chief Tim Curry estimated more than 300 brawlers and bystanders took part in the pre-planned fights that lasted for several hours and required Maywood police to call in 40 officers from neighboring agencies including Oak Park, Forest Park, Westchester, Bellwood and Broadview and Cook County Sheriff’s police.

The brawl gave the district a black eye in the media as Chicago television news replayed student video clips of students stomping a 14-year-old girl as she lay curled on the ground, and her later arrest in possession of two chef knives. The videos went viral, showing up on the Drudge Report and Huffington Post online as well as on the Review’s website.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Maywood Community Police Officer Percy Allen said Proviso East and West students (and others) had planned the melee on Facebook and Twitter days before.

“They were at the school at 8 a.m., like they were at a job – to have a fight,” Allen said.

Audience member Barbara Cole, who runs Maywood Youth Mentoring, said she knew about the fight plans in advance through students in her program and questioned why the school didn’t know.

Proviso East Principal Tony Valente said, “This may sound bad, but we didn’t have a clue,” about the pre-planned melee. Valente said students had been warned that there would be repercussions if they were caught fighting on school grounds and the school security plan for the last day had come off without a hitch. “We were quite proud of that,” Valente said.

But the Maywood police chief said in June that the school failed to inform local police about the 9:30 a.m. early dismissal. Maywood officers, who are visible every day after school at 3 p.m., were caught off-guard.

Curry told the Review in June he was at a carwash with his squad car when he heard urgent radio requests for police help near the high school.

Collins-Hart said students were crafty and planned events off school grounds because they were aware that they would be suspended/expelled for causing trouble at school.

“I don’t believe the administration ignored something,” Collins-Hart said. “Our students are so bright that they can orchestrate a plan off school grounds, [if they know they’ll be punished for fighting at school].”

This brought suggestions from the audience of a hotline or a way to make sure community members could give schools a head’s up if something similar was planned in the future.

Several audience members asked why Proviso East no longer had evening football games when they did have evening basketball games. They said Saturday games were hard for working parents to attend and they were ashamed when fans of other teams said they would not attend evening games at the Proviso stadium in Maywood.

But school board member Readith Ester said that trouble at evening games at Proviso East was caused by misbehaving parents, not students. “Some parents are more of a problem than their children,” she said.

A firefighter on the panel also pointed out that basketball games were held when it was “32 degrees outside” and that police would have a hard time keeping order after a September or October football game.

“There can be problems when 300 people are walking home in a mass crowd leaving the stadium on a warm Friday night,” he said.

The conversation turned to ways the district could create a climate that would make students value their education and respect their school and community.

An audience member, Proviso East graduate and former youth pastor Robert Jones posed the scenario that Proviso East students might feel they were more valued if they swapped school buildings with PMSA.

“I wonder what would happen if we brought the students from Proviso East over here and sent the students here to Proviso East,” he said.

Another audience member suggested re-instituting peer mediation programs formerly practiced in the district.

Forest Parker Robert Cox, a former D 209 board member and Proviso East graduate, said his experiences as a substitute teacher at PMSA and PEHS over the past year had convinced him that quality instruction and enforcement of little things such as cell phone abuse during class would help to build a culture where students respected their education, school and community.

Collins-Hart agreed saying, “We want our children to feel safe to get a quality education.”

A parent said she thought under-employed parents should volunteer to patrol the corners after school.

Westchester Village President Sam Pulia said in the face of parents abdicating the teaching of social interaction skills to their children the school district should pick up teaching “civility, community service and community pride” as part of a curriculum.

Board member Theresa Kelly suggested a mentoring program for incoming freshmen to “motivate some of those children who don’t have strong support at home.”

“If parents aren’t helping we have to shoulder the load,” Kelly said.

And Maywood Youth Mentoring’s Barbara Cole ended the meeting with, “I have two words that will help this district, ‘school uniforms.'”

Collins-Hart promised to continue the conversation with her school administrators and to revisit the issue with another forum, even though community participation was poor.

This article has been updated to clarify the presence of officers in tactical uniforms at the Feb. 3 and 4 Proviso West disturbances.

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...