Fears of gang activity force changes in school bus route
CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) -- He's lived on Fagan Street in Alton Park for most of his years. He calls it quiet. But he won't give an outsider anything more than his first name: Willie.
"We don't have any gangs out here," Willie says. "Most of us are older people. During school hours, every now and then, you might see a few people standing on the corners, but it's no big deal."
It is to those who set bus routes for Hamilton County Schools.
"People were massing in the street," Transportation Supervisor Ben Coulter says. "Sometimes causing problems for the driver to get through. The driver did notice some weapons on people."
Two drivers have reported trouble on morning and afternoon routes. But they couldn't refuse to pick up children, nor let them off elsewhere. "We didn't want to panic the parents," Coulter says.
But right before Fall Break, Coulter emailed parents of students at Donaldson (Elementary) Environmental Science Academy and Orchard Knob Middle School.
Donaldson Principal Becky Coleman emailed her staff; the bus stop at 42nd & Fagan has been designated 'unsafe.' When classes resume Monday, October 16, buses will pick up and drop off students at 42nd & Dorris instead.
"We've gotta be where the kids are," Coulter says. "Sometimes you can avoid situations, sometimes you can't. This time, we can adjust."
The Co-Director of Chattanooga's Gang Task Force isn't the least bit surprised. "I would like to make sure that every parent had that information, school systems, parents," Boyd Patterson says. "I'm always concerned when there's a hot spot that directly impacts kids."
The 'hot spot' is only a block away from where George Dillard was shot Independence Day. Two-and-a-half weeks later, the Chattanooga Police Major Crimes Unit charged Ladarius Montrell Cross, 23, with Attempted Murder, Aggravated Assault, and Unlawful Possession of a Firearm. Investigators believe Dillard was targeted, but have not said why.
"Alton Park shows up continually as one of the hot-spots, both from police and from our Comprehensive Gang Assessment," Patterson says. "But knowing specific places, that helps us direct resources with pinpoint accuracy.
Walk Fagan for a few minutes, and you'll get an earful. But not on camera.
"You can't get through with all the cars parked on the street," says a young woman who identifies herself as a school bus driver, and a mother of a pre-teen and driving-age teenager. "One morning, they was out here shooting while the kids was waiting for the school bus."
Patterson insists that the next step is clear.
"We need a dedicated gang analyst," he says. "Someone with law enforcement experience, well-versed in technology, who can vet all this information we get about gang activity, and share it with everybody who needs to know it; schools, law enforcement, neighborhood people."
He's applied for a federal grant to cover what he believes will be a substantial salary and benefits package to attract qualified candidates.
'Willie' remains unconvinced. "Just follow the bus a few times when they (the students) come back, " he says. "They don't have problems."
Patterson concedes that the greatest obstacles to obtaining valuable information, and neighborhood cooperation, are distrust and fear.
"If you care about the community, coming forward shouldn't be something that anyone feels bad about," he says. "It's their community. Their future. They shouldn't have to worry about being branded as a snitch."
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