Gina DeJesus’ disappearance has changed her neighborhood
by Ariel Castro
(Plain Press, June 2004) Since April 2, 2004 , the day 14-year-old Gina DeJesus was last seen on her way home from Wilbur Wright Middle School , neighborhood residents have been taken by an overwhelming need for caution. Parents are more strictly enforcing curfews, encouraging their children to walk in groups, or driving them to and from school when they had previously walked alone.
“You can tell the difference,” DeJesus’ mother, Nancy Ruiz said. “People are watching out for each other’s kids. It’s a shame that a tragedy had to happen for me to really know my neighbors. Bless their hearts, they’ve been great.”
On Cleveland ’s west side, it is difficult to go any length of time without seeing Gina’s picture on telephone poles, in windows, or on cars along the busy streets.
“People are really looking out for my daughter,” Ruiz said.
For seven weeks, Gina’s family has been organizing searches, holding prayer vigils, posting fliers and calling press conferences. Despite the many tips and rumors that have been circulating in the neighborhood, there has been no sign of her.
One thing is for certain, however. Almost everyone feels a connection with the family, and Gina’s disappearance has the whole area talking.
“It’s traumatized a lot of people,” Bob Zak, Safety Coordinator of the Westown Community Development Corporation, said. “People are suspicious of everyone. Kids, parents, and grandparents are afraid.”
The organization serves Cleveland ’s Ward 19, which stretches from West Boulevard to West 134th Street .
Parents and relatives waiting for their children as school let out at Wilbur Wright recently expressed concern about the number of sex offenders living and working in the area.
“I really believe there needs to be more security,” Vaneetha Smith said as she waited for her niece outside Wilbur Wright Middle School at the end of the day. “We have too many kidnappings, and they should crack down on all the sex offenders in the area.”
Luis Perez echoed Smith’s concerns as he waited for his niece at the school.
“I think the neighborhood is pretty bad,” he said. “You have to be aware of some people out there.”
The Ohio Electronic Sex Offender Registration and Notification (eSORN) database lists 133 sex offenders living or working in Gina’s immediate zip code. Many residents of the area, however, cannot use the database, as they do not have access to the Internet at home.
“I have been here almost four years and I have been notified of only one sex offender,” Ruiz said. “And he lives only about 1,000 feet away from here.”
Ohio law prohibits sex offenders who are required to register from establishing their residence within 1,000 feet of school buildings.
“There is no enforcing the laws because they still live right next to the schools and the bus stops,” Ruiz said. She believes the process of registering sex offenders is essentially a waste of time.
At a Ward 19 crime watch meeting, one of ten monthly, residents describe the area as a multi-ethnic community where people work and try to keep their housing up to par. They feel the disappearance of Amanda Berry on April 21, 2003 was a wake-up call, but Gina’s case really caught everyone’s attention.
Many residents believe the schools and the city have more work to do to help out.
“There is not enough supervision at the schools and when the kids get out, they still run through the streets,” Smith said. “They say that once they leave the school premises, the school is not responsible for them. But until they reach their house, I believe they are. They should be more concerned with their safety.”
“The school is supposed to be a safe place,” Perez said. “They need more police around the schools, surrounding the area. Without that, it’s just going to keep on going and there will be more innocent people getting hurt.”
Isaac Rodriguez has seen some changes happen at Wilbur Wright.
“There are more security guards at the school now,” the father of two middle school students said. “They have been having assemblies and talking to the kids about the danger.”
“When you send your kids out to school now”, Smith said, “you don’t know if they are going to make it home or not. From West 105th to [West 110th], anything could happen. I feel the mayor should do something about that. The children should be our first priority, no matter what else is going on in the city.”
Zak, a former Cleveland police officer of 30 years, believes the community is feeling the effects of the city’s cuts in the police force.
“The first thing a city should do is protect its citizens,” he said. Although police cannot be on the scene of every crime as they occur, Zak reports that residents are getting responses to calls “one, two, and four hours later.”
Cuts in the police force are not the only budget changes that are directly affecting residents. The Cleveland Municipal School District is also mulling how it will eliminate its projected $100 million budget deficit. Among the items cut will be purchased services, employee overtime, supplemental pay, textbooks, school staff and student transportation.
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