'It's a Start'

'It's a Start'

Stonegate meeting offers hope against gang violence.

As part of her ongoing "Bridge Builders" program, South Lakes High School principal Realista "Rely" Rodriguez coordinated a community meeting with school, county and police officials at the Stonegate Village cluster last Tuesday night.

About 12 people showed up for the meeting which included Capt. Michael Vencak of the Reston Substation, principal Debbie Jackson from Langston Hughes Middle School, student leaders and Supervisor Cathy Hudgins, among others, Rodriguez said.

"We would like more participation in the future, but we were happy with the meeting," she said. "It's always good to have a gathering of folks who can come. You never know what might help a community."

The previously scheduled meeting came just days after an apparent gang attack in the Laurel Glade area of South Reston. In the attack, an 18-year-old Reston man was chased and beaten by three suspected gang members. One man, Melvin Arevalo-Alvayero, 24, of Laurel Glade Court, was arrested in the incident.

Though the attack did not happen on school grounds, the incident prompted Rodriguez to tighten security at the Reston school. Vencak said the Laurel Glade assault was the "catalyst" to bring the police and community together to talk and share.

Tuesday's meeting was another opportunity for Rodriguez and others in the community, including the police, to reach out to communities like Stonegate where economic and language barriers sometimes make regular communication with schools and police difficult.

AT TUESDAY'S MEETING, Rodriguez said she heard stories from parents and students who are afraid to linger in their neighborhood after dark because of gang activity. "They want to get their community back," she said. "Cathy Hudgins seemed to think that the new Southgate Center will go a long way in rebuilding this community."

Capt. Michael Vencak, head of the Reston Substation, who also attended the meeting, said there was a very good dialogue. "It was a very good first step, but it was only a start," Vencak said. "We're committed to continue doing this out in the community with the school system. For the longest time, we sit around and talk about doing things, so it felt good to finally get together and do something."

Rodriguez conceded that there is only so much she and her staff of teachers and counselors can do. "We are a partner in this, but we only have the kids seven and a half hours a day," she said. "We need the parents to be engaged in their children's lives. Get them to join clubs or teams. Even if they don't know how to play basketball or baseball, send them out and the coaches will teach them."

Rodriguez is in the process of organizing a similar event in the Shadowwood section of Reston. "We are just trying to be proactive and trying to educate the parents," the principal said. "It was successful, I know these families will talk to other families and I know I will have help from them in the future."

Vencak said he and his officers, including more bike patrol officers, will continue reaching into the community to try and find solutions to the rising gang problem. The Stonegate community was ripped apart by drugs in the early 1980s, Vencak said, before a similar coalition came together to make the community safe. Now the gang problem is forcing the community to come together once again, Vencak said.

"For the first time since I have been here in a year, we sat down and had a dialogue to discuss the issues that they think are important and to discuss how best to work together to resolve them," Vencak said. "It's a start."