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High school neighbors hope for end to youth loitering woes

Officials hope the just-opened Community School, a year-round alternative school at the Wahtonka campus, eases problems neighbors near the high school have with young people hanging out in front of their homes all day.

“I think, to be very honest, the new alternative program is going to have a significant impact,” said Molly Rogers, director of the Wasco County Department of Youth Services.

Her department monitors truants. She estimated maybe 10 of the 25 or so kids who regularly hang out during the school year on 11th street near Union, at the west end of the high school campus, are in its truancy prevention program.

Most of the youth who hang out there aren’t enrolled in school, but she believes they are drawn there because they know other kids are nearby at the school and can be enticed to skip class.

“It’s a rich environment,” she said.

North Wasco School District 21 was forced by budget cuts to close its alternative school at the Wahtonka campus two years ago. It started an alternative program at the high school, called Twilight, and it ran after school hours.

Residents in the neighborhood trace an increase in problems to when the Twilight program began.

The Community School opened July 7.

“I’m hoping that it will be a positive, big change, not only for the neighbors but also for the kids,” said The Dalles High School Principal Nick Nelson.

Rogers agreed.

“I don’t think it’s just going to shift [the problem] out to Wahtonka. I actually think that the new alternative school is going to provide a great learning environment for some of these kids.”

The project-based, hands-on program is aimed at getting unenrolled kids back into school.

“I think there’s a perception that these kids are stupid or dumb. They’re not, they may not be pulling an A in calculus, but they’re pretty bright kids,” Rogers said.

Holly Sandoz, whose home in the 100 block of 11th Street becomes ground zero for the daily congregation of youth during the school year, said the problems became much worse about two years ago.

They ruin flower beds, litter, smoke, play loud music and generally gather in front of her house all day long.

Most neighbors in the block quit parking on the street except Sandoz. The situation peaked in May, when two girls refused to get out of Sandoz’s way as she was pulling in to park on the street in front of her house. She nudged the girls out of the way with her vehicle, and the girls were ticketed for disorderly conduct.

“We do feel like we’re prisoners the whole school year,” said Rosalie Clark, who lives just east of Sandoz. “I understand part of it is my perception of it, but you can’t have any flowers growing out there.”

“They don’t have consideration for other people’s things at all,” she said. If she ever sells her home, she said she’d have to show it during summer, when the kids aren’t around.

Last fall, she saw a man in a car brazenly “doling out these little packets of stuff right in front of my place.” She’s found crack pipes too.

Nelson reached out to all the neighbors on the street to talk to them about the problem. Clark took him up on his offer and was pleased that he took the time recently to speak to her for a full hour about it, taking notes throughout.

The school had already been taking steps to address problems for neighbors.

During the school year, officials patrol the entire perimeter of the campus, two to three times a day, said Kurt Evans, assistant principal at the high school. They even go down the street and into alleys.

When they see a student they think should be in class, they radio the office to check the student’s schedule. Usually, they don’t have a class at that time, Evans said.

Nelson said the school is also trying to tackle the problem by increasing expectations for the “culture and climate” of the school, and it’s already produced results.

The stepped-up expectations were implemented when this year’s 10th graders started high school. The results are that, for the just-concluded school year, the 10th graders had the best attendance in five years, the best GPA and are best on track to graduate, Evans said.

Jim Ballinger lives at 11th and Union and said the problem has existed for years, but did get worse when the alternative program moved to the high school.

He figures students congregate on 11th because it’s farthest from the windows of the administrative office, at the opposite side of the campus.

“There’s no positive influence out there, is there? It’s totally unsupervised,” Ballinger said.

Ballinger has noticed the crowd is older now. But he still asks anyone who is smoking how old they are and if they’re a student.

He put up cedars to shield him from the chronic problem, but the kids would “face my house, back to the sidewalk and pee in my bushes.”

He used to rap on his window to shoo them away, but he doesn’t bother anymore, since it seems to be an older, potentially “more dangerous” element.

He’s now planning to build a fence to keep them out. “It used to be the branches stopped them, but they broke them off,” he said. He’s mowed his yard and found syringes and tourniquets.

Just recently, at 11:30 at night, his house was pelted with rocks, coming from the direction of the school.

“There‘s rocks all over my lawn.”

After graduation in June, Sandoz said two of the chairs used for the audience made their way to his house and the kids used them to sit on.

The Dalles Police Chief Jay Waterbury said he’d like to see a closed campus, but he knows it’s not an option when the school lacks facilities to feed students. The school’s small Chat ‘N Chew can accommodate 90 kids, and 900 are enrolled, Evans said.

Waterbury said police respond when the occasional call comes in. “The police department cannot solve this problem by ourselves.”

Waterbury said the school is trying too. “They have set garbage cans away from the campus in that area for the kids to use. The kids don’t use them…the school is not turning a blind eye to this.”

Rogers said a couple of her staffers drive by there on their way to work, and don’t hesitate to tell kids to get to class. She said the school’s location itself presents something of a dilemma, since most schools are located away from town, but this one is in the middle of it.

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