David Cook: Showing up to the gang crisis

David Cook: Showing up to the gang crisis

October 17th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

It's been 35 days since the Thursday morning meeting in the mayor's conference room when the Comprehensive Gang Assessment was presented to city leaders.

Considered by some as the most extensive gang assessment in the nation, the report (download your free copy at www.thefutureisours.net) is 173 pages long, with more than 50 pages devoted to one subject in particular.

Schools.

It's no surprise then that Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith belongs to the Gang Task Force Steering Committee. Made up of two dozen or so leaders -- government, business, nonprofit, law enforcement, health care and education -- the committee has been meeting once a month since early 2012.

Smith's presence there matters immensely.

"He has not been to any meetings I've attended," said former City Judge Walter Williams.

Williams said he joined the committee in the spring and since has attended "four or five meetings."

"I have not seen the heavyweight leadership of the school system," Williams said. "In all due respect to Rick Smith, he's busy. ... He just can't be all and do all. It is important that, if he's not there, then one of his chief lieutenants needs to be there and be able to speak with authority."

Three other steering committee members -- who wished to remain unnamed -- confirmed that Smith has missed most, if not all, the meetings they've attended. While leaders from law enforcement, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and local governments are regularly present, the absence of top school administration is noticed.

"Representation is important," one steering committee member said.

Smith said he attended the initial meetings last winter, but then delegated the job to Assistant Superintendent Lee McDade.

"I don't know how many times Lee has attended or not attended," Smith said.

McDade was unavailable for comment Tuesday afternoon.

"I would like to go to every meeting every time somebody asked me to go," Smith said. "But that is almost an impossibility."

But these aren't normal, everyday meetings. Gang influence extends into most, if not all, schools -- "most students ... are aware that gangs are present in their schools," the gang assessment reads -- which means that Smith's attendance is crucial.

"I think the school system has a part to play," he said. "We have 42,000 young people come to our schools every day."

Smith said he and other "central office key personnel" had read the report. He said a program that trains teachers on gang issues already exists, run by Karen Glenn and her Students Taking a Right Stand program.

"[M]ost teachers and staff have had little training on how to deal with gangs, and how to identify them," reads page 97 of the assessment.

Smith said he and Gang Task Force coordinator Boyd Patterson are in regular communication.

"Smith and Lee McDade granted us unfettered access to the school data and students for the assessment," said Patterson. "This is key, and we look forward to working further with them in this crucial phase which is planning for implementation."

The steering committee will begin answering one main question: Now that we have all this data, how do we implement it?

By following the model provided by the National Gang Center, Patterson said, two things rise to the top: outreach workers (walking the tough-neighborhood streets) and intervention teams (working in schools).

It's not as if Smith is napping or slicing through nine holes of afternoon golf. But it is also impossible to see how implementation of these programs can happen without his active support and vocal presence each month. I asked Smith if he planned on attending future steering committee meetings.

"Sure," he said. "Absolutely."

"The steering committee's involvement is key right now," said Patterson. "We're in a critical period now."

And what is the first thing you do when there's a crisis?

Show up.