Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Officials, residents discuss safety at Silver Spring summit - Gazette

by Jason Tomassini | Staff Writer | Wednesday, May 20, 2009

County officials and Silver Spring residents gathered Saturday at Montgomery College for the first Safe Silver Spring Summit, providing a rare opportunity for officials, adults and youth to be in the same room and offer varied perspectives on their own safety.

After statements from county and law enforcement officials, five workshops were held with residents of all ages to discuss various safety issues, such as gangs, self-policing and truancy.

"We wanted this to be as broad-based a discussion as possible," said Tony Hausner of Prezco, an umbrella group of several civic associations in Silver Spring that planned the event. About 120 people participated in workshops and discussions throughout the day.

With participants split into five classrooms, here is an account of the various discussions held Saturday afternoon.

Workshop on gangs — 1 p.m.

Susan Cruz of the Crossroads Youth Opportunity Center in Takoma Park discussed the center's outreach coordinators, such as workshop participant Mario Martinez, who attempt to identify gang members in the community and bring them to the center.

"We're trying to find a counteroffer for youth instead of gangs," said Cruz, who spent time working in gang intervention is Los Angeles. "We need to be out there chasing kids around, just like the gangs do."

As alternatives to being in gangs, the group suggested using the current site of the Silver Spring Library on Colesville Road as a youth center when the new library opens. The group also discussed having teens work on the future renovations at the Old Blair Auditorium at 313 Wayne Ave. in Silver Spring.

Workshop on safety in Central Business District — 1:20 p.m.

Residents spoke with members of the youth group Mixed Unity, who disputed that many of the youth that frequent downtown Silver Spring are in gangs.

Most youth come downtown simply to hangout in an unstructured environment. Providing a similar environment for youth groups would better engage at-risk teens, said Mixed Unity member Douglas Ceron-Reyes.

That point resounded with Silver Spring resident Roni Falk, who said her 15-year-old daughter shies away from environments with obvious adult supervision and would prefer groups such as Mixed Unity or places such as the open artificial turf area at Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring that was removed to make way for construction of the Silver Spring Civic Building and Veterans Plaza.

"It was interesting hearing their perspective and what they find threatening," Falk later said of speaking with the Mixed Unity students. "They have a much different environment than I do."

Much of the discussion centered on defining what is "civil behavior" downtown, so that visitors, security and police all expect the same environment.

The students acknowledged the increased concentration of teens downtown, due largely to the loss of the artificial turf.

"It's a big and free space and now we are crammed into that walking area," said Howa Toure, a Montgomery College sophomore in Mixed Unity. Youth now hang out in the shopping area on Ellsworth Drive, where "we're loitering if we aren't buying something," Toure said.

Truancy workshop — 2 p.m.

In another classroom, a group, including two members of the state's attorney's office, the director of safety for Downtown Silver Spring and teenagers, discussed truancy and how parents, teachers and law enforcement can make sure students stay in school.

The students said many truants hang out at businesses on Ellsworth Drive in Downtown Silver Spring. Michael Petty, director of public safety for Downtown Silver Spring, said that problem is difficult to address because it deals with private businesses on a public street.

Assistant State's Attorney George Simms said it doesn't help that businesses that "have an interest in seeing large chunks of children in their restaurant" might not be "interested in monitoring kids that shouldn't be there at a certain time."

Montgomery Blair High School sophomore Adam Ndiaye made a point that some county officials hadn't considered. He said parents are as much to blame for truancy as parents.

"Teachers are always complaining about calling parents and no one picks up and they don't call them back," Ndiaye said.

"Yeah because they don't know them," interjected 19-year-old Fatima Williams, a Montgomery College student.

Later, the state's attorney's office compiled the e-mail addresses of the participants to spark future discussion that will help the county combat truancy.

Discussion summary — 2:45

All the workshop participants then returned to an auditorium to summarize their discussions, sharing solutions. It was here that participants could see many of the issues they discussed – gangs, youth groups, public safety – were more connected than they had thought, said Silver Spring resident Emily Sudbrink.

"It's not one area's problems, it's not one neighborhood's problems, it's everyone's problems," Sudbrink said.

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