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Community response to Dayton Daily News article—YS ‘drug culture’ overstated, some say

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Ask an adult who was raised in Yellow Springs and returned here to live what the village is about, and many will say it is a safe, progressive community that accepts people for who they are. Ask young people who grew up in Yellow Springs what defines the village, and many will say it’s a safe place where people support one another. Ask a family who chose Yellow Springs over neighboring communities what attracted them here, and many will say that its safe, intimate environment is ideal for raising kids.

But according to a Dayton Daily News article from last Sunday, May 25, Yellow Springs, apparently known to some as “Little Moscow,” is not only home to a “major drug ring” that supplies marijuana and cocaine to several counties but is also breeding a new kind of “violence and organized crime.”

“That is unprecedentedly false,” Yellow Springs High School junior Miles Plumer said in an interview on Monday as four of his classmates, senior Élan Orr and juniors Belle-Pilar Fleming, Anna Carlson and Patrick Morrissey, nodded their heads, laughing. “That’s ridiculous,” one of them said.

Yellow Springs has its share of drug users and distributors, but the level of use hasn’t changed much in the last 40 years, nor is it very different from other communities in the area, Yellow Springs Police Chief John Grote said in an interview last week.

What has changed in the village over the past several years is the approach to law enforcement, particularly regarding drug abuse, which is being investigated more closely and prosecuted more heavily than ever before, Grote said. And the impetus for that shift was the 2002 murder of YSHS senior Timothy Lopez by his classmate Michael Rittenhouse and its connection with the drug enterprise, he said, that their slightly older classmate Iddi Bakari was running out of Columbus before he was indicted last month by a Greene County grand jury on 22 felony counts.

Local police, school administrators and peers of all three students say they did not suspect the drug activity at the high school was intense enough to be life-threatening, nor that it was the seed that would later cause one of its graduates to sprout a drug enterprise in Columbus. And everyone interviewed for this article agreed that neither before the murder nor since then has there been any activity to suggest that Lopez’s murder was anything but an anomaly.

But the discovery of the impact drugs could have on Yellow Springs served as a “wakeup call” for Grote, who said that even if drug use is not on the rise, any level of drug activity can have a negative effect on the community and is worth prosecuting.

“I think you have to try,” he said.

Crime prevention in the village

Drug use and drug-related crime has not increased in Yellow Springs or YSHS, Grote said, “but our intervention has resulted in more knowledge,” and a higher rate of prosecution. Felony arrests have been up in Yellow Springs since the department joined the Greene County Agencies for Combined Enforcement (ACE task force) four years ago and local officers began increasing their own investigation of “street level” incidents.

In prior years Yellow Springs police averaged eight to 10 felony arrests per year, compared to 2006 when police logged 50 felony arrests. Since then, the ACE task force has rolled Yellow Springs drug-related crime incidents in with cases from other task force member communities, including Beavercreek, Fairborn, Sugarcreek Township and Xenia. According to ACE task force officer Bruce May, drug-related crime in the village has risen “somewhat” since he joined in 1999.

But of the crime that occurs in the village, about 80 percent is drug and alcohol related, Grote said. Whether it’s a domestic call or one related to theft, fighting, public disturbance or a traffic infringement, in most cases the root cause is someone addicted to or using drugs and alcohol, he said.

In the past, local police were trained to respond to calls by addressing the presenting issue, Grote said. But now police are practicing more drug interdiction by looking into what has caused the incident and who else is being affected by it. On a domestic violence call, for instance, police are more likely to find out if alcohol is involved, if the children are being neglected, if there is food in the house, and other problematic symptoms.

“We’re trying to become more proactive that way, and we’re also steering people in the direction of getting help,” Grote said.

Being involved with the ACE task force has also resulted in a higher volume of incidents that are investigated in connection to larger criminal activity outside of Yellow Springs, he said.

“Since we got involved with the ACE task force, we’re now experiencing much larger drug busts, and we’re doing it at cartel levels as well as all the way down to street-level buying, which often leads to bigger things,” Grote said. “It’s being more cognizant of a problem and trying to put more resources to answer that.”

Drug use at the high school

Marijuana has been the most prevalent drug in Yellow Springs for decades, and it has mostly been amounts in the $10 range, “dime bags” at street level purchases both in the village and in the high school, according to Grote.

At the high school, according to the Dayton Area Drug Survey conducted each year by Wright State University to gauge teen drug use in schools, alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes are the main substances students at YSHS choose to use, according to survey statistics from the last 10 years. On average, about 80 percent of Yellow Springs seniors have used both alcohol and marijuana at least once, and about half use them regularly.

Other drugs such as ecstasy, LSD, mushrooms, and amphetamines, such as speed and cocaine, are also reported in the survey to have been used in the high school on a less frequent basis involving perhaps one to two individuals each year, according to Yellow Springs High School Principal John Gudgel.

The level of drug use at YSHS doesn’t seem to have changed much from Gudgel’s perspective since the 90s when he began working there, though he has noticed that students are beginning to experiment with drugs at an earlier age, closer to seventh grade and up through sophomore year.

But the school’s approach to enforcement has become more rigid over the past 10 years, since Gudgel became principal. The West South College Street corner just opposite school property where kids used to smoke before school and at lunch is no longer occupied, and the bathrooms no longer have graffiti and cigarette butts on the floor. And the school has exercised its right, if there is probable cause, to search a student’s backpack or locker to find illegal substances, Gudgel said.

A student assistance team, partially funded by the prosecutor’s office, has also been employed to receive and support students who are either referred by a teacher or a friend or who come forward with an academic, social, emotional, family or substance abuse problem. About a third to a half of the issues the team, consisting of Assistant Principal Vickie Hitchcock, guidance counselor Robin Fast, and teachers Sarah Lowe and Kevin O’Brien, deals with are emotional problems. And last year, of the 20 to 25 students the team handled, three involved substance abuse issues.

The murder of one of the high school’s own students by another scared the school’s community members, many of whom knew both Rittenhouse and Lopez were dabbling in drugs, Grote said, but did not expect that their involvement would result in such a devastating loss. Still, the school has refused to introduce K9 units into the school, as recommended by the ACE task force and as every other high school in Greene County has done, which Gudgel feels would threaten the substantial trust that exists between administrators and students.

Instead, the school has chosen to maintain a vigilant intervention program and keep encouraging students to communicate their needs.

“If drugs are affecting our kids, we need to do something about it, we have to fight it,” Gudgel said. “Because we have the knowledge that the impact it’s had is very negative.”

The school has never had a student bring a drug-related weapon to school, and school administrators have not perceived a more serious threat of violence from drugs now than before or after the murder in 2002, both Gudgel and Hitchcock said.

Several students agreed. Drugs at the high school include mostly alcohol and marijuana and a couple of people using cocaine, according to Orr, Morrissey, Fleming and Carlson. That’s the way it’s always been, and they’re comfortable with that because they feel no pressure or judgment from their peers to use drugs and because the use of drugs does not threaten them with violence either at school or in the village. They feel completely safe in Yellow Springs, they said.

“All the ‘creepers’ in town, you know them, or you know their story, and so they’re not actually creepy,” Fleming said. “You could sit in front of Weaver’s all night and be fine.”

“The only thing I don’t feel safe about here is the cops now have tasers,” Morrissey said.

The kids also say that their parents put a lot of trust in them, allowing them to roam the village with their friends and use their freedom responsibly.

“My parents know I’m not retarded — they trust me, and that makes me not want to abuse that,” Orr said.

The kids know people in the village who sell drugs, but they say that it’s small-time stuff, and that the biggest connection between Iddi Bakari and Yellow Springs is that people know and love his family who lives here.

“The whole Iddi thing has been blown all out of proportion,” Morrissey said.

According to May, Bakari’s ties to Yellow Springs are significant because he grew up here and developed both a customer and a dealer base here. But he would not say more about the local crime related to Bakari’s enterprise because authorities are still searching for Bakari, who was placed on America’s Most Wanted list last month.

Greene County Assistant Prosecutor Suzanne Schmidt also said this week that she would not comment on the specifics of Bakari’s case because it is still open.

Chasing drugs limits freedoms

According to the youth at the library, if Yellow Springs has a reputation for being soft on drugs, perhaps it has less to do with a tolerance of substance abuse than an appreciation for what it means to be young and experiencing many things for the first time. And according to several local parents, perhaps Yellow Springs also has a greater level of acceptance for all types of people, who choose to see drug users as people with substance abuse issues rather than as monsters.

Neil Silvert moved to Yellow Springs with his wife Tracy because of its “accepting” atmosphere, and their children have been able to grow up “with all colors and types.” He worries about his kids’ exposure to drugs and alcohol, and he became alarmed seven years ago when some of the high schoolers adopted a “thug” look and began talking about selling drugs and making lots of money.

So Neil, a teacher at the Greene County Learning Center, talked to his kids about the illegal and addictive dangers of drugs and alcohol and established some rules to limit their exposure. He knew the kids his son’s age were experimenting, and he hoped that it was just “sneaking a beer here and there,” he said.

The shift in the police’s interdiction policy made Silvert feel police were looking out for the safety of his kids and their friends. But now he has new worries that kids could be stopped for little or no reason and punished for relatively innocent experimentation.

“The ‘crack-down’ made me feel good, like they were cracking down on crime, and yet some of the kids, they’re experimenting but they aren’t criminals, yet they’re being treated as criminals,” he said. “This focus on the crack-down on drugs is also cracking down on the freedom they should have.”

Law enforcement in the village had already begun to change before Lopez was murdered, according to Yellow Springs native Terry Lawson, who raised his son here and coached youth baseball and basketball. Police have been more likely to stop kids and instead of simply lecturing them and calling their parents to deal with them, as in the community policing that former police chief Jim McKee used, police will call kids’ parents and then feed them to the Greene County court system.

That less personal way of addressing juveniles instead of helping to rehabilitate kids on the edge has tended to criminalize them by giving them a record they will have to defend if they want to go on to school or get a job, Lawson said.

Jonathan Stillwell, who graduated from YSHS in 1998 and lives here now, agreed that when Bakari’s drug activity started here it was very small, and didn’t have that much to do with Yellow Springs after Bakari moved to Columbus in 2001. From Stillwell’s perspective, prosecuting people here for having a marijuana joint won’t root out serious criminals and it has the potential to cause a lot of harm to those who are innocent young people.

But if left unchecked, drugs and the glamorous, money-making image that accompanies them can also cause a great deal of harm to the community, Grote said.

“We know we’re not going to stop drug use, but drugs and alcohol have such an impact on society, that we can’t sit back and say that’s how things are and let them go,” he said.

Two murders in five years is a lot for a small community, local parent Brian Chase said, referring to the murder of Tim Harris in 2004, which was never proven to be related to drugs. Though Chase still feels Yellow Springs is a safe community, he thinks that increased surveillance by police is a sort of insurance that it stays that way.

Police response, deployed in moderation, is good for the safety of village youth, local parent Shernaz Reporter said, but that must also be balanced by talking to youth in honest terms about the false glamour that attracts people to the drug scene and can get them into unredeemable trouble.

“We need to throw it in their face — talk to them about how it looks good to play the pimp, but are you going to be able to look yourself in the face because that gangster subculture is a powerful thing,” she said. “But drugs are also impacting the kids that aren’t in that subculture, only it’s less visible.”

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