Meeting focuses on area gang violence

By Greg Gelpi

Take back your school.

That was the message repeated by a number of parents gathered Tuesday night at Forest Park High School.

The Forest Park Parent Teacher Student Association held a meeting to address increasing concerns of gang violence in the wake of a fatal shooting and numerous threats.

The school sent a letter to parents last week warning of the possibility of gang activity at school, but Principal Morris Davis said he did so because he would rather err on the side of caution.

"The school's answer to the ills is to make your young people safe," he said. "I'd rather alarm you and keep your child as safe as I can."

But Davis said he can't solve all of the problems of the world. He said he can only take measures to increase safety of students on campus. Once they leave school, he can't do anything to increase their safety.

Narwanna El-Shabazz drew applause from the crowd when she questioned the participation of parents and challenged them to take action.

"Take your school back," she said. "These are your children."

El-Shabazz, an area vice president of PTSA, called upon parents to give an hour or more to help patrol the hallways, clean up the school and take an active role in the school's safety.

The Forest Park PTSA has 25 active members, President Tanevery Jenkins said, although more than double that number attended the meeting.

"As a group, we're stronger than an individual," she said. "As a group, they can't stop us."

Members of the Forest Park and Clayton County police departments and School Resource Officer Sgt. Walter Randall said they rely on information and support from those in the community in curbing gang violence. Information is crucial to battling gangs, they said.

"I've said from day one that I can't take care of a problem I don't know about," Randall said. "I'm sure your children will tell you that I'm really good about taking care of the problems I know about."

Randall, who has worked as the school's resource officer since the program began at the school 12 years ago, said that Forest Park High has the fewest violent crimes per capita of all 51 schools in Clayton County.

He placed signs containing a phone number for students and parents to use to confidentially report safety issues in each classroom of the school, he said. To report a concern, they should call the hotline at (770) 472-7200, extension 64516.

The county police have a special unit that focuses on gang activity, Assistant Commander of Special Operations Mark Thompson said.

"It is our belief that information is power," he said. "I don't think you would be frightened if you knew who you were dealing with."

The officers urged all of the parents to call 911 and alert authorities of any suspicious activity.

Some parents accused officials of trying to "sweep the problem under the carpet."

But, officials responded that by holding a meeting and asking for information they are addressing the problem.

"We're not going to solve the problem overnight, but we can start by informing you," Davis said.

Fears of gang violence increased after the fatal shooting of Devon Gates. Vap Chhoum was arrested in connection with the incident, and threats of retaliation began to circulate.

In response to the threats, Morrow High School canceled its annual homecoming parade and increased security at its homecoming football game.