The message to 18 young men in or affiliated with gangs was clear: Put down the guns and stop the violence.
A “call-in” took place Wednesday at Mahoning County High School on the city’s South Side, and youths who are on juvenile probation and their parents learned of services available to help teens change their ways.
They heard from law enforcement about what would happen if things stayed the same.
The call-in was organized by the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence and is based on a strategy that has been successful in reducing violent crime in cities across the U.S.
Youngstown Police Chief Rod Foley said the teens, who are members of or affiliated with South Side gangs, were asked to take the message back to their friends.
“We’re trying to give them a way out, and if they don’t choose that way, we’ll give them a long sentence,” Foley said, adding more call-ins for youths and adults are planned for this fall.
Nearly all of the speakers mentioned the recent murder of 8-year-old Bryce Linebaugh, including the Rev. Willie F. Peterson, executive director of Center for Community Empowerment and pastor at New Birth Kimmelbrook Baptist Church.
“I’ve been talking to babies about what it feels like to die,” said the Rev. Mr. Peterson, who works in Bryce’s neighborhood.
“But I’m here today to speak light to you. When you leave here, your life will change whether you like it or not,” he said.
The pastor said he can help connect youths with education, employment or relocating. The teens also heard from educators and faith leaders about even more opportunities available to them.
Jose Valentin Jr. was there with his two sons, age 15 and 16, and said he had been trying to get them help.
“This opened the door,” he said.
Valentin said he made bad choices as a teen but now works at General Motors Lordstown and is an emergency medical technician.
“I want to raise my sons to be great men,” he said. “This community needs this. It’s painful to watch and hear about an 8-year-old being murdered. That’s devastating. If we don’t do anything, we’ll keep burying our kids and building jails.”
Carol Roland spoke to the teens about loss. Her son, Terrell Roland, 18, was murdered outside her South Side home in 2008. He had returned home from his Columbus high school during spring break and was set to return the day he was shot.
“The bullets were meant for his friend, but that didn’t make him any less dead. Bullets don’t have eyes, but people do,” she said.
Robert Miller, resident agent in charge at the Youngstown division of U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told the teens assembled that statistics show 57 percent of youths on juvenile probation become adult criminals, but several factors, mainly education, can change that.
Miller showed them a photo of LSP gang members smiling and explained how that photo was used as evidence in a federal court case. He also warned them that in federal court, there are very few plea bargains and no probation for violent offenses.
CIRV coordinator William “Guy” Burney said the call-in is just one part of the initiative.
“It takes a community and togetherness to make an impact, and it’s critical that we speak with one message: The violence has to stop, and it will.”
For information on CIRV and resources available, call 330-742-8779 or email GBurney@cityofyoungstownoh.com.