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Smoketown community starts afterschool watch to keep Meyzeek students safe

 A young adult man daps with two middle school students with backpacks on on the sidewalk.
Jess Clark
/
LPM
Meyzeek afterschool watch volunteer Dre Watters greets several students he knows.

Middle school students said they felt scared walking home, so community adults stepped in to create the after school watch.

School is out at Meyzeek Middle School, and students spill out of the yellow brick building into a sunny afternoon, heading to their bus or starting their walk home.

On each corner in the six-block radius of this Smoketown school, they’re bound to meet a trusted adult — a kind of afterschool watch. It’s the brainchild of Richard Wilson, who runs the youth service center at Meyzeek.

“My first day me and the principal [Charles Marshall] were walking around, a student came up to principal Marshall, and he was saying that he just had some issues getting home,” Wilson explained.

Staff and students say there have been a lot of fights after school this spring. Educators across the country have noted an increase in fights and other negative behaviors since 2020, which many attribute to the trauma and disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bullying has been an issue, as well, Wilson said.

Then there is the gun violence. Like many cities across the country, Louisville has seen shootings and violence spike since 2020. That violence is most likely to impact young people. In the last three years in Louisville, more than 1,000 people aged 25 and under have been shot.

Among those killed was 16-year-old Tyree Smith, who was shot in a drive-by in the Russell neighborhood while waiting for his school bus in 2021.

Youth advocates say fears over increased community violence is one reason why students are bringing more guns to school, creating a new public safety issue for JCPS officials. In a controversial vote, the Jefferson County Board of Education recently decided to bring in weapons detection systems next school year in hopes of keeping those guns out.

In Smoketown, Wilson organized a communitywide effort to monitor the area for about an hour after school lets out. Wilson said he got the idea from his father, who started a similar initiative as a pastor in Detroit. Meyzeek staff partnered with the Louisville Metro Office of Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods, Bates Memorial Baptist Church, and volunteers from several local nonprofits that serve youth.

Watch volunteer Kal Carey is with Youthbuild Louisville, which helps young people stay in school and find careers. After saying hello to a few students, Carey took out his car keys.

“I’m ready to start circling the neighborhood in my truck,” Carey said.

Students figured out pretty fast where the adults post up after the watch started in March 2023.

“They’ll try to give you the slip,” Carey said. So he drives around to keep an eye on as many students as possible.

Most students aren’t trying to avoid the adults. A bunch of kids walk straight over to volunteer Dre Watters, who’s dressed in stylish sweatpants, sneakers and a bucket hat. Watters runs an afterschool program called Hope by Hope, which provides meals and activities that center social-emotional learning.

“Just helping them regulate themselves, regulate their emotions and how to feel confident in who they are,” Watters explained.

He jokes with students, checks in with them, and tells them what’s on deck at his program this week: waterfights, a cook out, community service opportunities.

A seventh grader named Jordan told LPM he feels safer with Watters and the other adults out here.

“Because sometimes there’s fights afterschool,” he said. “They’ve been recently walking around to make sure nobody fights and make sure everybody’s safe when they walking home.”

The watch also helped get more students involved in free afterschool programming. Watters said the number of students in Hope by Hope tripled since he started volunteering in March.

“They just follow us right over to the program,” he said.

Watters says the Smoketown community is tight knit. Lots of families have lived in this historic Black neighborhood for generations. And that helps make an initiative like this watch possible. There are also several active nonprofits and churches in close vicinity to the school.

“Right now our kids have a wide net around them,” Watters said.

As the last buses pulled away and students dispersed, Meyzeek’s Richard Wilson considered the afternoon another success: No fights. Two students came close, but volunteers swept in.

“Got it under control,” Wilson said.

Wilson is hoping to keep the afterschool watch going for years to come and bring the community even closer together to keep Smoketown kids safe.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

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News Youth Reporting
Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.

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