A deterrent to crime, or just ‘cruel’?
For a website that was launched less than two weeks ago, this one’s already gotten quite a few tongues wagging.
The site, ittakesavillageperham.com, urges Perham residents to watch out for and report suspicious activity by minors, such as underage smoking, possible drug use, and “hanging out in unusual locations... campers, vans, sheds, garages.”
Parents, neighbors, concerned community members and even other teens are encouraged to make “citizen reports” through the website, including names and photographs of kids who seem to be engaged in suspicious behavior, as well as where they were seen and what they appeared to be doing. This information might later be shared on the site and with local law enforcement (last names and photos are not posted to the site).
The site features pictures of people looking through binoculars and spy glasses, along with text such as, “You see them! They are packed into the car like clowns. It’s after midnight and you know they are up to no good! Are they drunk? Are they on drugs? Are they going to a fight? Don’t their parents care?”
“Neighbor used to watch neighbor,” states the site’s homepage, “and if they saw a child doing anything dangerous, would tell his parents. With people not knowing their neighbors, this doesn’t happen like it used to.”
The creators of the site, who didn’t want to be identified by name in the newspaper, started it as a way to deter kids from using drugs or engaging in other illegal activity.
The issue is personal to them: as one of the creators explained in a telephone interview, her own teenage son had to be sent to a boys’ home for drug addiction. She’s trying to prevent that kind of thing from happening to other families.
“He had been so secretive,” she said of her son’s addiction-related behavior. “And it dawned on me that secrecy was part of the problem, so I thought that maybe this website could help (others).”
“If we can keep one kid from trying drugs, that’s our goal, even if it’s only one,” she added.
Despite what the site’s creators believe are good intentions, the backlash has already begun.
In responses posted on the site, one person calls it “cruel” and chides it for “stereotyping” and “bullying” the so-called “bad kids.”
The site’s creators say they have also gotten some threats from kids who have figured out who they are, who tell them things like, “you better watch yourself” or “we know where you live.”
And not long after their site launched, another site, perhamissafe.simplesite.com, popped up in response. Evidently created by teenagers, this site encourages public comments and states, “We don’t want to be followed or have pictures of us on display on that creepy website. We are not animals. We are teenagers. We deserve privacy and freedom.”
An email sent to the administrators of that site did not receive a reply by press time.
Much of the “suspicious activity” that’s already been reported and shared on ittakesavillageperham.com takes place along a road referred to in the citizen reports as “Stoner Alley.”
This road, which is actually Sixth St. SW, located just west of Perham High School, was also a topic of conversation at a public meeting of city councilors and department heads last week.
Police Chief Jason Hoaby said at the meeting that up to 10 high school students or recent graduates frequently congregate along Sixth Street during and after school hours, and it’s been a source of complaints from nearby property owners. The complaints usually involve underage smoking or littering, he said, and the problem seems to have gotten worse in the last couple of years.
Officers are doing what they can to mitigate the issue, Hoaby said, but the kids aren’t breaking any laws by standing around in public places.
“We’re not saying they’re bad kids,” he said. “And we’re not trying to target kids… But the neighborhood around there, they don’t like it.”
Truancy officers can be contacted when kids are skipping school, and underage smoking citations can be issued when minors are caught smoking, Hoaby added, but those measures don’t usually do enough to stop the kids from coming back the next day.
Since it’s all happening off of school property, school officials’ hands are tied, as well.
“The school is trying, and law enforcement is doing what we can,” said Hoaby. “...But there’s just not a lot we can do.”
That’s a big part of the reason ittakesavillageperham.com was launched – to put the responsibility of “raising a village” into the whole village’s hands.
The creators of the site don’t live on Sixth St. SW, but one of them said her son used to spend a lot of time there before she discovered his drug use, and she believes illegal drug activity goes on there. The area is one she’s hoping more residents will keep an eye on as a result of the website.
But not all the residents along Sixth St. SW see a problem. One homeowner, who also asked not to be named, said he’s had to talk to kids about littering in his yard a couple of times, but that they’ve been respectful, for the most part, and just appear to be doing what most teenagers do – “hanging out.”
Another Perham resident, speaking anonymously, said the website blew the problem out of proportion, sending out the wrong message about Perham and Perham teens, who are generally “really good kids.”
Those who do see a problem and want to take action may want to do so cautiously: while taking pictures of people, even minors, in public places is legal, Hoaby said repeated attempts to photograph or watch a particular person could be interpreted as stalking or harassment.
But the site’s creators say that’s not at all their intent.
“We’re not out to bug the kids that are out there,” said one of them. “We’re out to stop other kids from becoming addicted. To stop the ones who aren’t out there yet, from going out there.”