Walking down the streets of Burlington, it's hard to believe that a very serious problem exists. But at-risk youth are being exposed to drug trafficking and dealing right in our neighborhoods.
"Some of our older Boys and Girls Club kids in the middle and high school grades were telling us things like they were afraid in their neighborhoods," said Mary Alice McKenzie, the executive director of the Burlington Boys and Girls Club.
While any child may be targeted by a gang, many children pulled into crime are lower income children or students who may not excel in school.
"We know that children who are suspended in school are at a greater rate have a greater likelihood of failing in school, perhaps dropping out early, or not achieving enough in school," McKenzie said.
McKenzie has formed a task force to address concerns of gang-related activity among local youth and how the community can work together to stop children from becoming targets for gang members. She brought in a gang prevention and intervention director to help the task force understand the extent of the problem and the solution.
"So far, what we've decided is that we need a different way of collaborating together around prevention efforts," McKenzie said.
The United Way, Burlington police and community members joined the task force. Police say over the past 18 months, there has been an increase in gang-related crimes. But the problem affecting local youth is not what they say they would call "gangs," the concern is vulnerable kids being targeted to distribute drugs and carry out illegal activity.
"So, we want to make sure that we're not worried about someone's official affiliation with a national gang or a street gang in a big city. What we're worried about is groups of people getting together and sort of organizing criminal enterprise," Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling said.
The task force hopes to provide at-risk kids with other options, such as after-school activities and programs to keep them off the streets. But the first step is getting the community to understand it is a problem that exists, and addressing the influx of drugs in Burlington and Vermont takes the support of the city as a whole.
"This is about reducing violence, increasing the safety of the community, reducing the flow of drugs, getting treatment to those who need drug treatment, and ensuring that everyone has an opportunity for education, employment, housing, all the basic needs at its lowest level," Schirling said.
The Vermont Boys and Girls Club hopes to begin a grant process as soon as this fall through the Boy and Girls Club of America to help fund their efforts.