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One Parent at a Time

Latest community meeting with school and police officials at Dogwood fails to attract large crowd; leaders vow to press on with fight against gangs.

Jazmyn Jackson says she is tired of being scared in her own neighborhood. The 16-year-old says her mom worries every time Jackson, an only child, leaves her South Reston home. Jackson said she normally wears black clothing because she doesn't want to wear blue or red. Those are gang colors, she explains. "Gangs are everywhere and they are bad," she said. "They ride through my neighborhood. My mom is scared about me 24/7."

That is why Jackson, a South Lakes High School junior, is working with school and police officials to help take back her neighborhood. "It's important for everyone to get involved," the 11th grader said. "We should all care about what goes on in our community."

Jackson was one of a handful of people who came to the latest community update meeting led by Capt. Michael Vencak, commander of the Reston Substation, and Realista "Rely" Rodriguez, the South Lakes principal.

The meeting held at Dogwood Elementary School followed a similar gathering in Stonegate Village in September. The Stonegate meeting came just days after an apparent gang attack on an 18-year-old Reston man in the Laurel Glade area of South Reston. The attack, and the ensuing community outrage, prompted Vencak and Rodriguez to bring police and school officials together to begin a dialogue in the community on the safety concerns of parents and students. Both the principal and the police captain have made it a priority in recent months to reach out to communities in and around the Southgate area, where economic and language barriers sometimes make regular communication with school and police officials difficult.

Jackson said she has begun to see a difference in her community, saying that it has seemed "a little more safer" since these meetings began in September. But there is more work to be done, the high school junior said. "I just want to be able to walk down the street in whatever color I want," she said.

WHILE ONLY A FEW parents, including the mother of the 18-year-old beating victim, showed up for last week's meeting, several community leaders were on hand to discuss ways to address some of the community's safety concerns. Despite the low attendance, Vencak and the other leaders remain upbeat. "We're still not discouraged and we are definitely not going to give up. We will keep reaching out to the community," the captain said.

Much of the meeting was spent brainstorming ways to increase the participation of parents and neighbors.

Mike Torres, who works for the county's Alcohol Drug Services (ADS) and was at last week's meeting, said parental involvement is key. "Getting parents involved is critical," Torres said. "The kids who are successful in my program invariably have parents who are involved in their lives ... We need to develop strategies on how to get more parents involved."

Unlike other ADS offices, the Reston office has made it a priority to make itself a visible part of the community, Mike Moxley, the ADS clinical supervisor said. ADS also sponsors a free weekly parents support group every Thursday night.

Officer Dave Tipton, the South Lakes School Resource Officer (SRO), agreed. "The number one problem is parents not being involved and that lack of involvement transcends all races, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds," Tipton said.

John Coleman, who runs the South Lakes Hispanic club, challenged everyone at the meeting to bring 10 people to the next meeting. "We're the leaders, we should be able to find 10 people," Coleman said. "If we can't make a commitment right here, then we can't expect to ask the community to make a commitment."

TORRES WORKS with at-risk teenagers, mostly Hispanic gang members who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Increasingly, he is counseling teenagers at a younger age. "The gangs are getting younger by the day. Most of the kids in my program are 13 or 14 years old." Torres said. "For them it really means something to be part of a gang. It also means protection."

During the meeting, Vencak highlighted the recent rash of incidents involving gang violence at and around Bellou High School in Washington, D.C. "We don't need that in Fairfax County. We don't need that in Reston," he said. "That is why we are here. This is a partnership. What goes on in the community spills over into the schools and vice versa."

William Bates, a South Lakes teacher and administrative intern, led the meeting and talked passionately about the need to give back to the community. "Whether we live here or not, we need to try and touch these kids and nurture them," Bates said. "It's our job to care. If there is an issue, we can't wait for something to happen. We can't wait until someone is murdered. We have to take preventative action."

The mother of the beating victim echoed Bates' sentiments. "I hope it doesn't have to come to this point," she said, her voice trembling. "I don't want more parents to have to go through what my family has had to go through. It has been a whole big disaster."

VENCAK AND OTHERS discussed the need for alternative after-school activities for local children. Michael Thomas, an assistant basketball coach at Herndon High School and teacher at Herndon Middle School, and three friends came to the Nov. 12 meeting to pledge his support to finding ways to keep children off the streets. Thomas, a 2001 Elon University graduate and former basketball player, says he wants make sure other kids like him have opportunities other than gangs. "Basketball gave me a focus. Sports brings everybody together. Not all of my friends were so lucky," the Herndon High alum said. "Kids get out of school at 2:30 p.m. and their parents don't get out of work until 6, we have to find a way to keep them engaged and involved."

Lisa Ehrhardt, the parent liaison at Terraset Elementary School, said she was thrilled to see Thomas and his friends at the meeting. "I know there are a lot of young black boys in this community who are hungry for a male role model," Ehrhardt said. "Let's face it, a lot of these kids don't have a dad. That is the group that I am concerned about."

Ron Samuels, who went to Herndon with Thomas, agreed. "I think they can relate to us and we might be able to better identify with their struggles," said Samuels, who is black. "We can show them that there are alternatives to gangs. It wasn't long ago that we were where they are now."