During a forum Wednesday evening, Statesboro’s three candidates for mayor responded to a question about youth gangs involved in criminal activity here.
About 150 people attended the forum hosted by Agape Worship Center on behalf of its youth development program at the SpringHill Suites conference center. Pastor Donald Chavers Jr. welcomed guests and thanked participants. Michelle Hall and James “Major” Woodall, now a minister with the church, served as moderators. Incumbent Mayor Jan Moore and challengers Jonathan McCollar and John Grotheer took turns responding to questions, some of which were submitted by audience members.
One question was this: “There is alleged gang activity in the city of Statesboro area that some say has been happening for over 20 years. What are your thoughts?”
McCollar noted that he and Dr. Sharon Tracy, then a criminal justice professor at Georgia Southern, and the late school superintendent Dr. Jessie Strickland called attention to the presence of youth gangs in Statesboro years ago.
“We addressed this issue over a decade ago,” McCollar said. “So here we are in 2017, now we’re going to address this as a city. Again, I believe in leadership that understands the issues and is willing to have those tough conversations to move our community forward.
“We have gangs moving into our community for the simple purpose of criminal enterprise, and we are having our members of the community and those students who are entrusted to our community at risk,” he continued. “We must have a serious dialogue about youth development. The city must take the lead.”
Grotheer said: “There is no place in Statesboro for gang activity, and most likely a lot of the crimes that are committed are by, not citizens of Statesboro, but people that have come here to commit the crimes. So it’s probably not just a Statesboro problem as much as we need to work with other agencies and other communities to combat this problem.”
Statesboro’s police chief, Bulloch County’s sheriff and other law enforcement agencies “should get the resources and the funding that they need and the support of the mayoral and council to take on this problem because it impacts all areas of the community in a negative way,” Grotheer added.
Moore began by saying she is “first and foremost” an educator. Now vice president for economic development at Ogeechee Technical College, she was previously a school psychologist.
“Gang activity is going to be here as long as we allow gang activity to be here, and until we can engage our youth in second grade, third grade,” Moore said. “We lose them, I’m telling you, we lose them by those grades; they’re gone, and all we’re doing at that point is begging and pulling and pleading. … We have got to get them from elementary school, to be there for them first, second, third grade and on.”
Moore has an Education Specialist degree and a master’s of education. McCollar, now assistant campus director for Armstrong State University’s Liberty Campus in Hinesville, holds a Master of Public Administration. Grotheer, whose top degree is a Master of Business Administration, recently retired after a 20-year career in which he was city clerk and finance director for the city of Covington and then finance director and interim county administrator for Bryan County.
The next question was how Statesboro can create more opportunities for youth.
Grotheer said the city needs to work with the Statesboro-Bulloch County Parks and Recreation Department to add to after-school programs “that would keep youth interested and occupied.” He agreed with Moore that children start down the path to trouble at early ages.
Using the acronym R.O.E., Moore said Statesboro must “row downstream with these kids,” providing them recreational, occupational and educational opportunities.
“We’re in it right now, and it’s going to take a battle on every one of those fronts, which means it’s not the mayor’s job, it’s not Georgia Southern’s job, it’s not anybody else’s job. It is our job,” she said.
McCollar framed the issue in terms of what he identifies as Statesboro’s biggest challenge.
“The biggest issue our young people are facing is poverty,” he said.
He called for creating “a Children’s Zone, right here in the city of Statesboro, where we use all of our collaborative partners and institutions within this community to work to save all of our children.”
Candidates also got a question about the Boys and Girls Club and expressed support for working with it.
The previous week, Statesboro police linked six suspects said to be members of a gang called “the Mobb” with two armed robberies and a burglary. In a statement at that time Moore said, “Gang activity in our city will not be tolerated” and praised the work of police.
Advanced voting is underway, and Election Day is Nov. 7.
The Statesboro Herald will host another forum for these candidates at 7 p.m. Monday in the Transitions Learning Center cafetorium, adjoining the Bulloch County Board of Education’s central offices at 150 Williams Road.