Cops and the community reclaim Montessori playground

Catch the action that’s happening around outer East Portland’s Franciscan Montessori Earth School – actions that send a message to gang members: ‘Stay away!’ …

Lili and Nova Huynh, students at the Franciscan Montessori Earth School, help paint a play structure which has frequently been marred by gang graffiti.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Because their campus sits a block south of SE Division Street, behind the Fred Meyer superstore on SE Clinton Street and SE 148th Avenue, many people are unaware of the Franciscan Montessori Earth School’s sprawling campus.

“We are trying to make our play space available for the community around here,” says Mother Francine Cardew, founding administrator at the school, as two dozen volunteers – from little kids to adults – work to spruce up their play area on August 14.

“Our community does not have other green space available,” continues Cardew. “Our gates are closed during her academic times, so our children are safely cared for. At 6 p.m. and on the weekends, we open our grounds to the neighborhood, so they can use it as a community park.”

Damir Dzafic (the youthful looking man second from the left), and his kids’ kids from the school’s summertime basketball camp, volunteer time and effort by helping spread new bark chips on the playgrounds.

Gang vandalism detracts from park setting
Since gangs moved into the area during the past few years, Cardew tells us, “We’ve had such incredible vandalism – about $250,000 in damage, to the school and the grounds.”

She points to the middle school building, next to the play area. “During the summer, vandals have broken windows in our building; we’ve taken to boarding them up during the summer months to protect them. And as an independent Catholic private Montessori school, we get no support, neither from government nor the church.”

Coming all the way from the Woodstock Neighborhood, the members and counselors of Boy Scout Troup 420 – Joe Davis, Mike Davis, Laddie Buck, Jensen Hagen, Niko Webb, and Alexander Thompson – help, by painting one of the school’s play structures. “As scouts, we always do community improvement projects.  When the community needs us, we come out and participate,” explains Laddie Buck.

Portland Police to the rescue
However, Cardew says, it looks as if things may be tuning around. “The police have really taken an interest in protecting our school. It’s really helping; I am tremendously pleased with that.”

Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Officer Cory Stenzel is on hand, along with the Mobile Precinct, serving as a focal point for the day’s “take back the neighborhood” activities.

“This school has been the target of graffiti and other criminal mischief crimes for too many years,” Stenzel informs us. “Along with Officer Robert Brown – and other officers from East precinct – we’ve made a concerted effort to keep the graffiti away and keep the criminal element out of here, and keep the school clean.”

Gangster roundup nets 14
The enforcement effort culminated June 30, Stenzel continues, when cops served 14 simultaneous search warrants on houses that were related to the graffiti at the school.

“We made 14 arrests,” Stenzel says. “Most those arrested were between the ages of 15 and 19, with a majority being under 18 years of age. They’re a mixture of gangsters and gang ‘wannabes’. The wannabes either feel bored, or they look for a feeling of belonging to something. But, some of the gangsters actively doing crimes – we’ve locked up several of them, suspected of shootings.”

The gang graffiti, Stenzel tells us, is meant to gain the vandals recognition; to claim territory.  “They want to announce their presence to everybody. It serves to put fear [of them] in the community, and act as intimidation to rival gangs.”

Nathan Tran, Nick Lee, and Howie Tran get into and under playground equipment to put on a fresh coat of paint.

Community clean up follows gang clean out
“Out of the anti-gang enforcement, this project was born,” Stenzel explains. “We’ve got the Boy Scouts of America, and family from General Manufacturing Co., students and families from the school, community members, the Portland Graffiti Abatement Office, and Portland Police all pitching in to help the school.”

Letting vandalism and graffiti go unchallenged, adds Stenzel, causes more serious problems to move into a neighborhood. “We’re putting them all on notice: ‘It’s not okay to tag and damage property’. We’ll do whatever we can, for as long as it takes, to nip this in the bud.”

These youngsters make play of a day of work, knowing they are helping to restore a play area for their neighborhood.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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