Security, early education make Duquesne safer, Zappala says
District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said education and security are restoring a sense of community to the Duquesne Place housing complex.
Zappala toured Allegheny Intermediate Unit's Duquesne Family Center and Head Start classroom on Thursday.
In response to a January 2012 shooting in which a 16-year-old was killed and a 14-year-old was injured, Zappala pushed for increased security and partnered with AIU and Duquesne City School District to provide early childhood learning opportunities and family resources to break the cycle of violent crime.
“This particular area had never been brought to my attention before these things happened,” Zappala said.
His office studied the complex and its demographics, and learned that 623 children under the age of 17 live there.
“There was a cultural change when we became involved,” Zappala said. “People are proud of their children, and we gave them even more reason to be proud.”
As discussions became public about the future of Duquesne students — the local elementary school providing a kindergarten through sixth-grade education, and secondary level students attending West Mifflin Area or East Allegheny schools — it became apparent to Zappala that Duquesne children needed early tools to overcome the adversity and challenges associated with their home district.
“We can reach children when they are this age,” he said. “When they get to be 15 or 16 years old, sometimes they've made up their mind and their course is irrevocable.”
Zappala said his office, the AIU and the school district wanted to put children and their parents in a position to succeed.
AIU assistant executive director Catherine Lobaugh focuses on family and community services.
“We know that the early years are learning years, and with (AIU programs), we are able to get our children ready for kindergarten,” Lobaugh said. “We have a lot of parent involvement, and we ask parents to actively engage with their children, realizing that they are their children's first and most important teacher.”
Head Start opened its Duquesne Place classroom in the fall of 2012, and 16 children are enrolled. Duquesne Family Center soon will operate GED classes and workforce development services as it expands to include the Duquesne Place Adult Learning Center with potential support from the Community College of Allegheny County.
“We will provide services here for adult learning so that the adults of the families that participate in our programs also will be able to be successful,” Lobaugh said.
Duquesne schools acting superintendent Barbara McDonnell held back tears when she spoke about her 16 years working with the city's students.
“These kids are ours, and they deserve the best,” she said. “With our partnership with the AIU and the county, that's what we're trying to do. We want to keep our kids here where they belong, in the community they grew up in with families that were raised here as well.”
The earlier that students can be reached, McDonnell said, the better prepared they will be for the classroom.
Under the court-appointed receivership of Paul Long, the school district is working to overcome its financial and educational difficulties. Long said the success of Head Start programs at Duquesne Place and Duquesne Education Center are “very important to the future of this school district and the future of the children of the community.”
Zappala explained that crime can be impacted by more than law enforcement.
“I think we've demonstrated that through partnerships like this that education and preschool learning programs are huge in terms of changing people's lives and changing people's attitudes,” he said.
Police Chief Richard Adams extended thanks and appreciation to all parties involved in the cultural change within the Duquesne Place complex.
“This area is a better and safer place to live through their efforts,” Adams said. “We have security cameras in place to assist our department and the security outfit they have working up here.”
On Friday and Saturday, patrolmen work on site with contracted security personnel.
“They're up here walking the beat with them, providing any kind of service they can,” Adams said. “And we also have added patrols.”
In 2010, police were called to the complex 476 times. This year's records through August show that call volume is down to 150, none of them in response to shots fired, Adams said.
There has been a significant decrease in violent crimes, and most police calls are related to nuisance matters, Zappala said.
“I grew up here, and I do see a lot of changes,” Duquesne Place resident Brandi Washington said. “I hope it continues to be a better place so that we can be outside and do things without needing security 24/7.”
While she would like to be able to cook outdoors or have a wading pool for her kids, she said, those are sacrifices residents are making to have a safe, structured environment to raise their families.
Washington, a single mom with three children, said Duquesne Place is giving her an opportunity to start a “real life.”
While the fencing that separates the complex from Commonwealth Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood seemed imposing at first, neighbors said they've come to realize its benefit.
“It felt like we (were) living in jail, but now I see what they're doing,” Washington said. “It has stopped a lot of stuff, and they can keep up the good work. I do feel safer, and it's come a long way.”
Jamie Lang moved to the complex five years ago.
“When I first moved up here, it was a complete mess. It was chaos,” she said. “I've seen a couple people get shot, and I just didn't want to live around that.”
With increased security and new ownership, Lang said she sees a positive change in the community and feels more comfortable at home.
She and neighbor Wanda Hunt said they are happy knowing they can go to their mailbox at any hour of the day without feeling scared.
“I've been here for almost four years, and I've seen a tremendous amount of improvement,” Hunt said. “We don't have all of the drugs that were coming into our neighborhood as well as the violence that has stopped.”
The increased security, she said, not only deters undesirable neighbors from moving to Duquesne Place, it prevents transients who may be wanted for crimes in other municipalities from using the complex as a hideout.
“They can't come here,” she said. “It's not happening anymore.”
Zappala described Duquesne Place as a tremendous success story.
“The people who live here — this is their home,” he said. “We're not going to let the bad people come in here anymore and take advantage of them. We're not going to let the bad people take advantage of these children.”
Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1956. or firstname.lastname@example.org.