Blustery weather and the early hour weren’t enough to scare off residents of Columbia Heights, who put drug users and gang members on notice yesterday by declaring the Hiatt Place corridor a “Drug Free/Violence Free Zone.”
About 150 people, many of them students, turned out for the 7 a.m. rally, organizers said. The event featured a special roll call by the officers of the 4th Police District and speeches by students, school officials and community leaders, as well as music by a student choir and band.
The Hiatt Place corridor in Northwest is a half-block area with four schools, one recreation center and a daily population of about 1,600 young people.
Maria Tukeva, principal of Bell Multicultural School, made a public plea for help in May after seeing more students showing up for class under the influence of drugs or not showing up at all. A task force was formed, and yesterday’s rally resulted from its months of work.
“[The rally] will bring the community together and make students more aware and more confident to come together to make a change,” said Judy Rosales, senior class president at Bell Multicultural School. “I am the mother of a 2-year-old girl, and I wouldn’t want her to grow up in a neighborhood with drugs and violence. I don’t want her to face the challenges I’ve faced.”
The rally was sponsored by the Columbia Heights Weed and Seed, part of a U.S. Justice Department initiative that replaces negative elements in a community with positive ones. Another rally is scheduled next week.
Heavy drug trafficking and gang violence are two of the most serious challenges facing young people in this ethnically diverse area.
During the past six months, there have been 35 robberies, 51 burglaries and 37 assaults in the police service area that includes the Hiatt Place corridor, according to 4th District Officer Timothy Mako. He said there have been 225 reported crimes overall.
Dr. Goziam Attoh, a science teacher at Bell, has sent three children through Lincoln Middle School and Bell.
One child now is in medical school at Howard University, but Mr. Attoh’s youngest son still attends Bell and is “always getting into trouble,” he said.
Although Mr. Attoh said he talks to his son regularly, “I’m not sure if it’s drugs or not.”
Enrique Morales, a tall, silent young Salvadoran, is a senior at Bell who has experienced gang violence firsthand. Formerly part of a gang called Vatos Locos, Enrique said he is trying to leave that life behind.
“I don’t want to be involved in the problem. I don’t want to kill somebody for no reason,” Enrique said.
But members of a rival gang are still after him, Enrique said, and they tried to kill him three weeks ago by running into him with a car. His shoulder was broken, and two persons with him also were injured.
“Maybe I’ll drop out. Every day I come to school and they’re looking for me,” Enrique said.
Circumstances such as Enrique’s, which make the area “like a war zone,” according Bell Prevention Program Coordinator Christian Munoz, are why so many gathered early in the wind and cold to call for change and their determination to work toward that goal.
Despite the obstacles, 4th District Cmdr. Cathy Lanier said the Hiatt Place corridor is unique because of the resiliency of many of the students.
“The kids are involved, and I don’t have that all over the community. This is the only place where we’ll get a high school to come out and say, ‘We don’t want this here.’ I have high hopes for this area,” Cmdr. Lanier said.
That was evident as Judy Rosales spoke to the crowd, declaring Hiatt Place a drug- and violence-free area and calling on the crowd to keep it that way. “We want to make our neighborhood safe and secure for the next generation,” she said.