When Harry Thomas was campaigning for a seat on the D.C. Council last year, he was greeted at 21st Street and Maryland Avenue NE by a group of sixth and seventh graders.
"They said to me, 'See those drug dealers over there. They are ruining our lives,' " Thomas recalled. One youth added, "If you will get rid of the drug dealers, we will vote for you." Thomas noted that the children were too young to vote, but the boys persisted: Promise to get rid of the drug dealers, and they would make sure their parents voted for him.
Thomas won the election for the Ward 5 seat, but making good on his agreement to rid his ward of illegal drugs has proved to be a much tougher battle. When he learned recently that 55 percent of the inmates at the Lorton Correctional Facility who had attended District high schools had come from Ward 5, Thomas was shocked.
"We have a situation where our ward has the second highest arrest rate for drugs in the city," Thomas said during a recent interview.
"In one block, in the 1700 block of Montana Avenue, 88 kids have been arrested during the past year for cocaine and heroin. I have a very bad problem with this," he said.
According to police reports, residents as young as 11 years old are being arrested for PCP. Last year, two fifth graders were arrested on drug charges. It gets worse as they get older: 24 sixth graders, 84 seventh graders, 118 eighth graders, 237 ninth graders, 269 tenth graders.
To be sure, Ward 5 has its pockets of poverty, its public housing projects like Langston Terrace and underdeveloped areas such as Ivy City, where drugs flow more heavily than in other places. But this is also one of the most solidly middle-class communities in the city, the home of the Hechinger Mall, the new Rhode Island Avenue Shopping Center and Catholic University. There are 21 playfields in the ward, 40 tennis courts and 27 schools, including three career development centers.
When illegal drugs can find a secure home in a place like this, that means something has gone wrong. New tactics are necessary.
When Thomas hosted a substance abuse conference in May, residents from throughout the ward showed up. According to drug abuse experts attending the conference, there are no fewer than seven drug "hot spots" in the ward, some of which have branched out near middle-class enclaves.
In one of the ward's most notorious drug areas -- Hanover Place at North Capitol Street -- police were able to make impressive gains through intense surveillance and street blockades. But most of the areas are not as accessible to police, and residents are now facing the fact that they must do more.
But do what?
Ward 5 residents at the conference came up with 64 suggestions for combating drug abuse, many of which indicated the frustration they feel.
One idea was to distribute bumper stickers that ask, "Have you turned in a drug dealer today?" The intent here is to encourage more residents to take police up on their rewards -- up to $25,000 -- for snitching on drug dealers.
Residents want drug abuse clinic reference guides posted so that those who want to get help will know where to go.
One of the more encouraging suggestions was that RAP Inc., the embattled but highly successful drug treatment program, be encouraged to expand into the ward.
Areas that do not have neighborhood watch programs were asked to start them immediately. Parents were encouraged to form organizations that allow them to get to know one another and to reinforce one another during conflicts with drug dealers.
Thomas said residents have recently begun implementing the suggestions. The survival of their neighborhoods -- and especially the children who live in them -- depends on their success.