(MCT) — In the aftermath of the shooting death of an Evanston teenager late last month, several hundred concerned community members gathered Tuesday night to revisit a difficult issue: youth violence.
"When tragedies occur in a community, we all change," Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said. "The question is: Are we going to change for the better or the worse? But we will change as a result of this death."
More than 400 people flooded the forum, held at Evanston's Fleetwood-Jourdain Center. Every seat at 20 round tables was filled, and dozens of people stood along the side walls and at the back of the auditorium to hear city officials present current youth recreational and job-training programs and to join breakout discussions on new ideas to combat violence.
Tisdahl called the forum in response to the Sept. 22 shooting of 14-year-old Dajae Coleman. The high school freshman and his friends were walking home from a party when someone opened fire in the 1500 block of Church Street.
Wesley Woodson III, 20, of Evanston, was charged last week with first-degree murder and aggravated discharge of a firearm. Police and prosecutors said Woodson, who allegedly has gang affiliations, mistook Coleman's group for the one that recently involved in a fight with his cousin.
"That was the first group that came by, and he made the assumption that that was the group that was involved," Evanston Police Cmdr. Jay Parrott said.
The mistaken identity outraged residents in the near north suburb, and hundreds attended Coleman's funeral Saturday. The incident put a new spotlight on the issue of violence among young people.
Sharon Weeks, of Evanston, noted that previous conversations about violence in town have been in smaller groups that often seem segmented by neighborhood or race. On Tuesday night, she was inspired by the diversity of the crowd.
"We're all of like mind. We all want to see the violence end," Weeks said.
Karen Maxwell, whose son played basketball with Coleman, praised the local police and the amount of local programs for children.
"I'm not here to demand action from someone else. I'm here to be a part of the conversation," she said.
Youth violence — and particularly gang-related homicides — appear to be on the decline in Evanston, police said.
In the last 20 years, there have been nine shooting or knifing deaths, including Coleman's, in which the victim was less than 20 years old. But only three have been recorded since 2000, Parrott said.
The most recent was in 2010, when 19-year-old Leslie Calvin was shot multiple times while driving in the 300 block of Ridge Avenue. In 2007, 17-year-old Darryl Pickett was shot in the 1700 block of Brown Avenue after a fight, Parrott said.
Before Pickett, there hadn't been a teenage homicide victim in Evanston since 2000.
"I don't think gang violence is increasing. I think it's decreased," Parrott said. He noted, however, that statistics through July for aggravated battery and aggravated assault are up 19.4 percent, compared with the same period in 2011.
The conversation about Coleman's death can help promote awareness in the community, and among parents, on how to keep children out of trouble, he said.
"The more that people talk about it, the more people get together and try to come up with solutions," Parrott said.