Mayor Otis Johnson wants Savannah to know that most young people in the city are good kids.
“Eighty to 85 percent of our young people do exactly what we want them to do and expect them to do,” he said during a Town Hall meeting held July 18 — then repeated the statement slowly so it would soak in.
It’s the other 15 to 20 percent that cause the problems — and get all the attention, Johnson said. Headlines scream about juvenile offenders, yet there is virtually no public recognition of “all the good kids,” he said.
But perhaps the “good kids” are ignored because the behavior of the others is deplorable — and it’s getting worse.
City Manager Michael Brown says juvenile crime is on the rise and juvenile arrests are up. Year to date, 854 such arrests have been made, compared to 1,434 arrests made in all of 2006.
“I’m very unhappy to report that youths under the age of 18 are responsible for one-quarter of the violent crimes,” Brown said. “In almost every case, a lack of parental involvement, even a culture that encourages violence, is a factor.”
In response, the Savannah Impact Program, which identifies and targets repeat offenders, is being expanded.
The city’s curfew ordinance is being more strictly enforced, and truancy sweeps are being done to catch local juveniles who are skipping school and getting into trouble.
Private groups also want to help. The Rev. Rick Bready, pastor of the Tremont Temple Missionary Baptist Church, has organized the Savannah Faith Coalition for Youth, and several other pastors who are involved accompanied him to the meeting. “The idea is that the faithful can assist youth and deter juvenile delinquency,” Bready said.
“We want to encourage pastors throughout the city and youth leaders to join us,” he said. “We need input and support.”
Bready said the group would meet Aug. 9 at 10 a.m. at the St. Pius X Family Resource Center. Potential volunteers are asked to call Bready at 651-6810.
The need for intervention is clear, Bready says, as 64 percent of the violent crime committed in the city involves people under 25. “It’s obvious we are dealing with a problem that needs to be addressed,” he said.
Mayor Johnson praised Bready’s group for its efforts. “The ones who are causing the concern aren’t in Sunday School,” he said. “We have to go where they are and not be afraid.”
James Putney, district director of the Savannah High School Parent Teacher Association, also attended the meeting. “We’re trying to get parents and grandparents to join,” he said.
Johnson praised the PTA and Parent University. He told Putney groups like his need to be “evangelists.”
“You’ve got to go out and sell your story,” Johnson said. “The citizens aren’t going to come to you.”
The council will meet with the Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools and the Chatham County Commission to look at ways to deal with the problem of parents who don’t provide for their children.
“It’s a very dicey situation,” Johnson says. “One side will say we’re getting in people’s homes and interfering with the rights of parents. The other side will say ‘Punish the hell out of them because they’re not doing what they should.’
“Somewhere in the middle we must find a way to deal with parents of unruly children,” he said. “We are throwing down the gauntlet (to say) that this type of behavior will not be tolerated.”
According to the city’s curfew ordinance, all youths under the age of 17 must be off the streets at 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and by midnight on Friday and Saturday.
“It’s the parent’s responsibility to know where their child is, what the child is doing,” Johnson says. “If they don’t do that, there will be a penalty.”
The mayor says he realizes the issue will be emotionally charged. “I’ve got my flak jacket on,” he said.
Alderman Mary Osborne said the council recently had a “very, very aggressive” meeting with the board of education and agreed to look at models of ordinances now in force in Jacksonville and DeKalb County. “We want to put teeth into this and do something about it,” she said.
Johnson said that when he was director of the Youth Future Authority, juveniles found after curfew whose parents couldn’t be located were taken to the Greenbriar Children’s Home.
“They were held there until someone signed them out. The first time, the child was taken to a safe place,” Johnson says. “The second time the parent was given a warning, and the third time, they were told, ‘That’s illegal.’”
Brown said the city currently has a contract with Park Place, a shelter for runaways, to house juveniles. “The police now take the child home, and if no parent or responsible adult is there, they’re taken to Park Place,” he said.
The city’s parental responsibility ordinance needs to be reviewed, Brown said. At present, the ordinance deems parents neglectful if there are illegal drugs or firearms in the home, repeated curfew violations, repeated absence from school or delinquent behavior.
James DeLorme, a city council candidate, said the communities of Charleston and North Charleston have ordinances that allow police officers to stop, question and detain anyone about why they are in a neighborhood. He said such an ordinance is needed here.
“If you go to any African-American community in Savannah, you’ll find young boys hanging on the corners and selling dope,” he said. “The police say they don’t have the authority to deal with them, which does not resound with the community.”
DeLorme says the council has been mandated by the voters to make changes. “You have the votes to do whatever you want,” he said.
Johnson said the council would continue to look for ways to deal with the problem of juvenile crime.
“We know, given the right course, the right adult support, that children will do what’s right,” he said. “We’ve got to struggle with the negative culture out there.”
Audience member Kathy Gideon said the Southside has been especially impacted by unsupervised youths. In addition to problems at the Star Castle on Mall Boulevard, whose patrons have been causing havoc after hours, a teen club on Abercorn Street closes at 10 p.m., leaving teens with nothing to do.
One night, the club didn’t open at all. “There were possibly 1,000 youth who had been dropped off and couldn’t get into the teen club,” Gideon said.
“They were unruly. They wouldn’t let other people go into the adjacent businesses. Not one person went into any of those businesses in three hours, so they had no sales.”
Alderman Tony Thomas seemed to defend the owners of Star Castle.
“Although the problems seem to be originating at Star Castle, they’re happening away from that area,” Thomas said. “It’s not so much Star Castle, it’s the whole of Mall Boulevard. Some aren’t Star Castle customers, they’re meeting with others who are coming out.”
Yet Thomas said he himself had gone to a Mall Boulevard parking lot to observe the situation for himself, and more needs to be done.
“There have already been gunshots at this location,” Thomas says. “It’s my prediction that a kid is going to be murdered or killed.”
Johnson noted that a few unruly people can ruin a good thing for everyone. “Five to six years ago, we had a skating rink,” he said. “Many kids behaved themselves and had a good time. A small minority of kids ruined it for everyone. We should have dealt with that group.”
A similar situation occurred at Hiphuggers, which was turned into a teen nightclub. “Hundreds of kids came and had a good time,” Johnson said. “A few rowdies ruined it for everyone.”
Now a similar situation exists on Mall Boulevard, Johnson said. “We need to identify the rotten apples and deal with them,” he said.
Kris Rice, executive director of the Coastal Children’s Advocacy Center, said child abuse and neglect are causes of juvenile crime. “We need more child abuse investigators,” she said.
At the present time, five detectives must handle the entire caseload for the city, Rice said.
“That is just not adequate for the need. We immediately need two more detectives in the unit. Four more detectives would be great,” she says. “Consider the expense worth it for the children’s sakes and the safety of the community.”
Alderman Van Johnson said the Department of Family and Children’s Services also needs more child abuse and neglect investigators. “The people we have now are stressed and overworked,” he said. “It is very stressful work.”
Mayor Johnson said that work has just begun on finding solutions to juvenile crime.
“It didn’t occur overnight,” he said. “It’s going to take decades to undo all this.”
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Mark McDonald, executive director of the Historic Savannah Foundation, said at the Town Hall meeting that the foundation is concerned about how development affects downtown neighborhoods.
“We want the city to continue to grow,” he said. “But we feel Savannah deserves the best and the city needs to set standards or it will not get what it deserves.”
McDonald noted the foundation has saved endangered historic and blighted buildings.
“The Historic Savannah Foundation has made five $10,000 grants available to homesteaders in the downtown area who are middle income,” he said. “I think we can get a lot more done working together than separately.”
In his city manager’s report, City Manager Michael Brown said the city’s concerns about development in the historic district include the proposed building’s height, proposed use of the building, availability of parking, affordability, architectural quality and protection of residents.
One concept the city is looking at to improve the quality of life is the encouragement of “green roofs” in the downtown area, Brown said.
Mayor Johnson said he too is concerned about development. “Progress in the historic and Victorian districts has forced up property values and rents,” he said.
With one-fifth of Savannahians living at or below the poverty level, there is a huge need for affordable housing. “At the same time, we have construction of condos that start at $500,000,” Johnson said.
“With development on Abercorn, we’re going to lose more affordable housing to condos,” he said. “This must be addressed. All citizens deserve a decent, affordable place to stay.”Town Hall outtakes
• The Town Hall meetings are working well, Mayor Otis Johnson says. “We’ve had an excellent turnout every time,” he says.
But Johnson did ask audience members to behave themselves. “First respect yourself, then respect the audience, then respect the elected officials,” he says. “We’re going to do the best we can for you.”
Johnson thanked everyone in attendance for their support and prayers for his brother, who has been in intensive care at Grady Hospital in Atlanta since a car accident. Johnson said his brother’s condition has improved enough that he is being moved from intensive care.
• City Manager Michael Brown presented Savannah’s “report card” to the council and audience members.
In public safety matters, crime rates are up. “The most disturbing is the increase in robberies,” Brown said. “Homicides are up. Aggravated assault is up.”
The police department is using manpower redeployments to address crime. The focus is at the precinct level, and the department is working to fill beats and increase walking patrols.
A new campaign has been instituted to remove derelict vehicles and demolish blighted properties. Volunteers are working to repair homes throughout the city, Brown said.
The city is continuing to promote economic development by creating a comprehensive directory of qualified minority and women-owned businesses. Step-Up Savannah’s Poverty Reduction Initiative has received a $140,000 grant to help local low-wage employees enroll in publicly funded work supports.
In capital improvements, Brown reported that the $1.5 million W. W. Law Center expansion was completed in June, and the $1.7 million renovation of the Lady Bamford Center will be completed in August.
Major projects currently under way are the Crossroads Water Quality Control Plant, the Ellis Square Garage, the Capital Street Fire Station, the landfill expansion, and drainage of Alice and Tattnall streets.
Citizens who want answers or action on non-emergency needs can call the city’s 311 Call Center. Brown reported that calls to the center are on the increase.
• Resident Kathy Gideon asked the council to look into an outage of the 911 system during a storm on July 14. Gideon said she heard about the outage when attending another meeting. “Why don’t we have backup generators?” she asked. “We have the potential for hurricanes here.”
City Manager Michael Brown confirmed that there was indeed a 9-minute 911 outage during the storm. He said the entire system didn’t go down, as radios still worked.