Sparta's small town feel also comes with some painful lessons

| 28 Sep 2011 | 03:01

Attack rattles community’s sense of security, leaves parents reassessing how much supervision teens need around town By Lori Price Sparta - Most local residents and visitors get the sense that Sparta is a picturesque, quaint, safe town, with that good old Americana hometown feel. A drive by the ball field any weekend reconfirms those feelings. However, as residents were reminded last month, its Norman Rockwell painting-like setting does not insulate Sparta from the same social issues faced by other communities. “Yes, Sparta is a lovely town and for the most part it’s a safe town as well,” said Sgt. Russell Smith of the Sparta Police Department. “However,” he added, “crime does occur everywhere. People are people.” In the wake of the Sept. 16 assault by three teenage girls on a Rev. Brown seventh-grader that took place in the Ungerman Field/Dykstra Park area, Smith cautioned parents about leaving their children unsupervised at the sports field or any other place in town. According to Smith, the crowded, well-lit ball fields may give parents a false sense of security. Parents, he says, should not assume their children are completely safe or that they are making wise decisions. “It might take a village to raise a kid, but parents can’t expect the village to be their kids’ babysitter,” says Smith. “Although parents may know their kids well and trust them, kids are still kids and are very much influenced by the behavior and actions of their peers.” Dorothy La Beau, the snack shack coordinator, has a bird’s eye view of the weekly activities at Ungerman Field. “Some kids stay after their game for a while to watch their friends play or cheer, and that never seems to be a problem,” she says. “However, there are others who we see here all day long, completely unsupervised. It’s during the evenings mostly, at the Lights and Heavy football games (teams of middle school age kids) that the need for police and parent supervision is the greatest. That is when there is a noticeable difference in the amount of unsupervised adolescents and teens. And yes, there have been some issues.” After last month’s assault that sent a seventh-grader to the hospital and resulted in the arrest of three Sparta students, parents in the community are second guessing their decision to allow their children unsupervised access to the park, and police have instituted a more visible presence during activities. But the increased scrutiny is not setting well with some who believe the incident is not a true representation of what goes on at the field. “We are not here to start trouble, we’re here to play ball,” says Tim Chuck, 14, who was at Ungerman Field recently playing basketball with some friends. “We’re all here to have fun and we watch out for each other. We’ve been dropped off since the sixth grade and never had any trouble,” adds Kevin Wright, a 10th grader. The teens acknowledge, however, that not everyone comes to the field to take part in sporting activities, and that some of their peers engage in inappropriate or illegal behavior. “I personally am not comfortable leaving my kids unsupervised,” says Doreen Middleton, a mother of four school-age children. “It’s not my kids I don’t trust, it’s other people that make me nervous.” Other parents agree. “Not all kids can be left unsupervised,” says Helen Navarro, whose children, a Sparta high-school junior and 13-year-old daughter, take part in sports activities at Ungerman Field. “It depends on the child. However, there must be a purpose, a reason the child is going somewhere, and not to merely roam around town.” Sgt. Smith says he recognizes the need for youngsters to socialize, but suggests parents set clear guidelines to avoid problems. “If you drop your kids off at a field or movie or other event, the kids must know not to leave that designated area for any reason. Don’t ask them to call you when they are ready to be picked up. By that time they‘ve had a lot of idle time to run amock, and that is when problems can occur. Tell them exactly where and what time you expect them to be ready to go home,” he said. Julie Reinauer, whose sons are involved in the football program, admitted to the occasional drive-by check and the unexpected drop-in to make sure her children are where they are supposed to be. “Cell phones are a necessity now,” she noted. “And you have to have a solid plan with your kids. But to blindly drop them off somewhere? No, not unless they are being supervised by their friends’ parents.”