Citizens discuss effectiveness of youth programs, future of local kids

Though it’s been months since Dover has seen a serious gang-related violent crime splashed across the headlines, concern about the issue is still percolating in the city.

Those in attendance at a public issues forum held Feb. 23 by the Dover Human Relations Commission expressed their worries for the future of the city’s youth, and the creeping local gang problem’s impact on children of all ages.

Gerald Rocha, a Magnolia resident, told the commission that the community needs to do something to divert kids’ interests away from what can seem like a glamorous gang lifestyle.

As president of the local alumni chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Rocha volunteers and mentors at William Henry Middle School in Dover, where he said students have to be watched closely while they use computers in class.

Frequently, Rocha said, he’ll see kids Googling gang signs, graffiti, and pictures of the clothes and accessories gang members wear.

For Rocha, what he’s witnessed is more than enough evidence to prove Dover’s gang problem is serious and growing, even though others may argue that the issue still is just a budding nuisance in the area.

“It looks like it’s being revered in the community,” Rocha said. “When are we going to throw the cards on the table and admit it? We have a problem.”

Rocha and others who attended the forum agreed that children in Dover need early intervention to keep them from being attracted to gangs, which often serve as a surrogate family and provide a sense of belonging to young people facing uncertain futures.

For Human Relations Commissioner member Dawn Allen-Pyne, tackling the problem means cutting through the blame that’s often leveled on parents and teachers. While strong parenting certainly helps, and good teachers can definitely impact their students’ lives in positive ways, it’s the children themselves who need to be forced to step up, she said.

“When are they going to be responsible for themselves?” Allen-Pyne said. “When are they going to hold the students responsible for the students’ actions?”

Rocha said that kind of personal responsibility needs to be developed at a young age.

“We have to come up with something in early development, childhood,” he said. “Teach them to want to learn.”

Dover resident Jeremy Kopp agreed with Allen-Pyne’s observation, but said it appears many schools are being counterproductive by expelling at-risk students for behavior problems, which only makes them more likely to end up in the streets.

“They don’t allow teachers to teach anymore, you are a babysitter,” he said. “They’d rather expel somebody.”

Kopp also said after-school programs like those run by the Boys and Girls clubs are productive outlets for kids outside of school, but they have to avoid becoming “babysitters” as well, and do more to emphasize family involvement.

“If you have a program after school, bring your dad, bring your mom,” he said.

A pair of Dover City Council members also attended the forum and shared information about ongoing work in the city that may help provide the kind of productive, engaging youth programs that the community is asking for.

At-Large Councilman Tom Leary said the Dover Boys and Girls Clubs are moving forward with a plan to build a new activity center on city-owned land at Schutte Park, west of downtown.

The 10-acre plot, Leary said, is being donated by a landowner in conjunction with a state project to realign Wyoming Mill and Hazlettville roads. Money to build the new center will include funds raised by the Boys and Girls Clubs as well as federal stimulus dollars.

Councilman Gene Ruane gave a brief description of the new Dover library project, which currently is under construction.

Ruane said the library’s expanded children’s section and new teen loft will provide a safe gathering place to socialize, work on school projects and participate in programs.

“We recognize that they need a place to go,” he said. “I think [the library] is a refuge.”

Rocha said whatever strategies are employed to direct kids away from gangs, the community has the ability to band together and make the effort.

“Dover’s small enough where we should be able to fight back,” he said.

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