PITTSFIELD -- A crowd of nearly 200 packed the gymnasium at Morningside Elementary School Monday evening to express concerns about gang-related violence in Pittsfield and begin to attack its causes.
Adam Hinds, coordinator of a grant-funded program to identify and assist youth at risk of gang involvement, acted as moderator of the meeting, which many speakers termed an unprecedented response.
The gathering was called by Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi after a 17-year-old was wounded in a shooting on Aug. 18 at the corner of Burbank and North streets, and a 15-year-old subsequently was arrested.
A panel of officials also commented and interacted with residents who stood to offer observations or suggestions for addressing the problem.
Bianchi, Hinds and others noted a tremendous surge of concern among residents since the shooting, which followed a number of shooting incidents in recent years.
"There was a lot of fear, anger, confusion" in the Pittsfield schools, said Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless, one of the panelists. He said the schools "feel an obligation to respond."
"I have never seen a turnout like this," said Police Chief Michael Wynn. "Thank you for hearing our cry."
Pittsfield Police stress community policing, Wynn said, but officers "can't be everywhere at once," and need the public's help.
Bianchi described the Shannon grant program, which established the program to reach at-risk youth and their families, and funded the community centers established last year with a similar grant, in part to bring police officers and service groups into closer contact with communities.
"We look forward to hearing what you have to say, so we can formulate our next step," Bianchi told those at the meeting.
Input from more than two dozen speakers was wide-ranging and at times included an emotional plea for more residents to become involved or help fund local programming for youth.
A number of residents said teens have few activities to engage them during the summer months and advocated funding more programs and more summer jobs for youth through the Boys and Girls Club or other local organizations.
A speaker who said she was a relative of the wounded youth said, "I've seen this coming," and urged residents to become involved when they know of a potentially dangerous situation.
"If you know something, say something," she said. "I think that as parents we have to be more involved."
Warren Dews Jr., a panelist who is a minister, said it is also true that "there are things to do in the Berkshires, but they cost money," referring to the many cultural venues in the area.
He advocated partnering with cultural organizations for more youth-oriented programs.
Eddie Taylor, CEO of the S.E.E.D Network, a panelist, made several comments and suggestions. He and others said there should be a greater emphasis on hiring those with a tie or strong affinity to the communities where the at-risk youth live to oversee programs aimed at helping them.
Taylor also said adults should "have them in the room," referring to the teens, when programs are developed and in determining why they become involved with gangs.
A speaker suggested uniforms for school children to lessen psychologically damaging competition among them at school and having every educated adult in the city volunteer to mentor a young person for a year.
Marie Richardson, who works at Taconic High School, said a number of graduates called after the shooting to express their concerns and also mentioned how much mentoring programs helped them while at the city school.
Another speaker said she has been a foster parent and advocated involvement by more families in the city, where she said there are great number of children in foster care or looking for homes.
"Open your homes," she said. "Broken children become broken adults."
A women stood to ask where people are needed, adding, "Sign us up. Give people a direction."
Hinds said some good options are to volunteer for a neighborhood watch group or the Westside or Morningside initiative organizations.
Hinds said the ideas expressed at the meeting will be compiled with the goal of developing plans of action to combat youth violence and its root issues.