Elementary school students rally in Lexington's Douglass Park against violence

Fifth grade students led a march back to Booker T. Intermediate Academy during a non-violence event at Douglass Park in Lexington, Ky., on Sept. 27, 2013. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Fifth grade students led a march back to Booker T. Intermediate Academy during a non-violence event at Douglass Park in Lexington, Ky., on Sept. 27, 2013. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

The letter to Lexington police Chief Ronnie Bastin from fifth-grader Wendy Dominguez asking him to join her at an anti-violence rally Friday in Douglass Park was direct:

"If you don't come nobody will come."

Lexington's police and fire chiefs, the mayor, the sheriff, and the commissioner of state juvenile justice all came to meet with fifth-graders at Booker T. Washington Intermediate Academy in Douglass Park. They took on topics such as gun violence, juvenile incarceration, violent video games and dangerous bullies.

The students had written persuasive letters inviting city and state leaders to the event, and they presented essays and raps about non-violence. They carried a banner up Georgetown Street from Douglass Park back to their school on Price Road.

Students got the idea for "Take Back Action: Non-Violence Day" from the anti-violence prayer walks encouraged by Imani Baptist Church, said Rebecca Powell, a consultant who has been working with Booker T. students.

The prayer walks held on seven Sundays in August and September drew thousands in Lexington in an effort to bring attention to crime around Douglass Park and other Lexington areas.

Lexington police have responded with extra patrols in Douglass Park and the Georgetown Street area. Police have also assigned Sgt. Rahsaan Berry as a liaison to residents, churches and schools in the neighborhood, said police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts.

In late summer, police began to see an increase in incidents of violent crime in the Georgetown Street area.

"However, due to increased patrols and community involvement those numbers have decreased significantly," Roberts said.

Police joined the prayer walks. "We were glad to partner with community leaders and faith-based organizations to show our support of grass-roots education and empowerment efforts," Roberts said.

Imani pastor Willis Polk said going forward, church members will continue to work on the problem with city leaders.

On Friday, the students wore T-shirts with a new slogan and rallying cry that police officials helped come up with: "We Care: Our Community, Our Future."

It's unclear whether the citizen movement against crime will result in jobs for youth or activity programs.

But city leaders reiterated Friday that they want to help students in such a way that they won't get into criminal trouble and will stay safe.

Fayette County Superintendent Tom Shelton, who spoke to students at the rally, said this week that the district would have a "more intentional focus on existing programs and on strengthening communication and collaboration with families and community to benefit our students and staff."

Tonya Edwards, who came to watch her grandson participate, said she thought that all students, including her high school-age son, should receive similar encouragement from city officials.

Fifth-grader Kortney Hall said it was her letter to Mayor Jim Gray that led to his appearance Friday.

"I said it would help us come together and help us stop violence," Kortney said.

"There are a lot of children in our community and we would like our children to be safe. We would hope that we would all come together and stop doing violent things."

Fire Chief Keith Jackson told the students he had attended Booker T. Washington Elementary. Jackson and Sheriff Kathy Witt encouraged students to become leaders in Lexington.

The police chief said he needed the students to be his friends and make good choices.

Hasan Davis, the state official who oversees Kentucky's juvenile prisons, offered a firm and encouraging message. "The last thing I want," said the state juvenile justice commissioner, "is to see you in one of my buildings."

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