High school students question community panel about crime

Wednesday, March 12, 2008 | 10:04 p.m. CDT; updated 4:36 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

This article has been altered to revise the estimate of the number of people in attendance at the forum.

COLUMBIA — Hickman High School junior Jessy Hwang, 16, is involved in several extracurricular activities. But she worries what might happen to them in the district’s budget crunch because, in her mind, after-school activities are a haven for troubled teens.

“What activities is the school board going to cut?” Hwang asked, amid proposed budget cuts which include as a possibility some after-school activities that require transportation.

Hwang was one of more than 250 Hickman students and teachers in attendance Wednesday night for the Speak Your Mind forum “The Crime Spike in Columbia,” with five community panelists at the high school. During the forum, the panelists struggled to answer high schoolers’ questions about funding and the trend toward violent crime. The forum’s message boiled down to the fact that the city’s resources don’t match its needs.

Panelists were Karla DeSpain, school board president; Lorenzo Lawson, executive director of Youth Empowerment Zones; Mayor Darwin Hindman; Phil Steinhaus, CEO of the Columbia Housing Authority and Officer Michael Hayes of the Columbia Police Department’s community services unit.

DeSpain didn’t have a specific answer for Hwang.

“We’re going to try everything we have to,” DeSpain said of not cutting after-school programs such as music, which require busing.

Lawson reminded students who will soon be 18 that they must vote if they want to change Columbia and how it handles its money.

Lawson said the reason why cuts in schools are possible is because there is “no youth initiative.”

“(It’s because) 17 percent of homeowners didn’t care whether you get an education or not,” he said. “Only a few adults is standing up for you but that is not enough.”

Hindman agreed: “If the people would support the schools to the extent they need to be supported,” cuts would not be necessary.

Other students felt uneasy about their safety.

“The violence has increased,” Hickman junior Morgan Jones, 16, said before the forum. “People are now starting to notice.”

Jones said she knows teens who have at least been arrested on suspicion of robbery, stealing, fighting and sexual assault.

Hayes said violent crime isn’t new to Columbia. He said he’s seen it in waves.

“Back in the ‘80s when the crack epidemic happened, we had drug gang wars,” Hayes said in response to the 34 percent increase in violent crime from 2006 to 2007.

Resources are also an issue for the Police Department. It pulled three resource officers out of Columbia schools in January to patrol the streets because of the increase in violent crime.

Hickman junior Omni Scott, 16, attributed larger scale school confrontations, such as the controversial disturbance in late February inside Hickman’s main office, to “high school drama.”

“If (fights) happen (in school), it is a bigger fight than what would happen after school,” she said after the forum. “It makes us not want to go.”

Steinhaus said troubled teens need a strong support from “caring adults.”

“What caused it?” Lawson asked rhetorically of violent crime. “I’m not ever sure we’re going to figure that out. But I’m here to help find a solution.”

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