The importance of community and parental involvement in the lives of young people was a reoccurring undertone of a panel discussion Monday about the need for positive collaboration between educators, students and law enforcement.
Close to 50 community members attended the forum titled "Schools: The Involvement Imperative/Protecting Our Future" hosted by the Center for Racial Harmony at Lindenwood University-Belleville.
The panelists were U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois Stephen Wigginton, Belleville District 201 Superintendent Jeff Dosier, St. Clair County Judge Heinz Rudolf and St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson.
The lack of involved parents in the lives of at-risk youth was brought up by several of the panelists and audience members as well.
Belleville Police Chief William Clay said police officers are doing what they can to hold parents accountable including issuing tickets to parents of children out past curfew. "I'm going to put the burden on the parent if nothing else," he said.
Clay praised the "effective and solid relationship" between the Police Department and District 201.
Wigginton said he routinely sees the absence of a male role model in the home as a contributing factor in the life of a youth going down the wrong path.
He challenged men to stop shooting one another and abusing the women in their lives and to take care of their children.
In juvenile court, Rudolf said he often doesn't see the parents doing what they can to help the troubled child. It's too often a grandparent on behalf of the youth, he said.
During a question and answer session with the panel, Belleville businessman William Bremen Sr. asked, "How do we deal with these parents that aren't doing their jobs? It seems to me the problem is the parents," he said.
Watson said all the blame doesn't lie on the parents. "Society is not helping the parents," he said. "We have scared every parent. They are afraid to discipline their kids, and we did that as a society."
The law enforcement community needs to educate parents, he said, about what is abuse and what is discipline. "Us as a society needs to step up help the parents and help schools become disciplinarians again," Watson said.
The heroin epidemic plaguing youth in the metro-east was also discussed by the panel.
Dosier said it's scary as a parent to think about what could happen. "If your child makes one bad choice, they can be addicted," he said.
Rudolf said the St. Clair County drug court does what it can to get drug abusers to kick the habit by testing them once a month and providing treatment resources.
Wigginton blamed the heroin epidemic partially on how inexpensive the drug is and it's availability. He said one "button" of heroin is just $10.
The lack of federal and state funding for schools and various programs aimed at helping youth was acknowledged by the panelists during the open forum Monday night.
"There's things we can do that don't cost anything," Rudolf said, including visiting schools.
If 10 St. Clair County judges visit schools six days a year, he said they could reach students at 60 different schools.
Facilitator Robert Wells Jr., an attorney, informed the audience of the difference in cost between educating a child and incarcerating them in a youth detention facility. The cost of educating a child is approximately $10,000 a year, and the cost to incarcerate them is more than eight times that, he said.
"If we spent more on education, we would spend less on incarceration," Wigginton said.
Watson said the biggest way to improve society is to teach children respect and responsibility. "It's something we need to work together on," he said. "We need to get back to the basics. Let's teach respect and responsibility."
A vast array of topics were covered during the nearly two-hour panel discussion Monday night. Dosier mentioned the dangers of social media for young people.
"We need to find ways to inform parents of the dangers of social networking," he said. "It's one of the worst things that happened in our society."
Jerril Jones, president of Racial Harmony, said he hopes to continue the discussion through future events. "We will keep plugging away," he said. "In the words of Mary McHugh, 'we can do this.'"
McHugh, a longtime Belleville educator and a board member at Racial Harmony, passed away last month.