Attacking the root of the problem

Published 6:28 pm Wednesday, March 3, 2010

This week, I sat in on a gang prevention session at King’s Fork Middle School led by the Suffolk police department and the commonwealth’s attorney’s office. As someone who traditionally thought of middle school-aged children as being relatively harmless, I was a little surprised they saw the students as being at risk. But the departments were right on track.

The teachers told me that when shown a photo of an AK-47, the students knew exactly what it was but not because they’d seen it on television. They called the deadly assault weapon a “chopper,” the common street name. Suffolk police told the students that gang members stash the guns under homes to use as protection when other gangs infringe on their territory.

On another slide, the police showed the students a picture of “Bloods” gang members in Hollywood Park. Members had told people in the neighborhood not to come into the park unless they were Bloods. Someone reported it to the police, who broke up the gathering and picked up a camera someone had dropped. It had photos of members throwing gang signs and wearing their colors.

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The fact that gangs are present in the neighborhoods of Suffolk was driven home even harder when the students were shown a map of downtown Suffolk. The majority of neighborhoods were color-coded to signify gang presence.

Students also were shown slides of graffiti on fences, walls and other areas around town, which many of the students recognized.

I’m not sure whether they saw the significance of what was taking place, but as a bystander I couldn’t believe it. Many of Suffolk’s youth have grown up taking for granted that “choppers” and graffiti are a normal part of every neighborhood.

The students were shown that while gang influences might be commonplace in some neighborhoods, those influences are a sign that the neighborhoods are in danger.

Hollywood has made it seem as though gang members are high school or college-aged youths. But the commonwealth’ attorney’s office drove home to the students that it’s not the older students who are in danger. It’s middle-schoolers who are being recruited into gangs.

One example described was a 15-year-old Suffolk girl who was part of a gang and was around when gang members beat a boy to death. She received 32 years in jail.

Middle school-aged children think they’re all grown up, ready to blaze their own trail and trying to assert their independence. Gang recruiters try to tap into that normal desire to create a new identity.

Kudos to the police department and commonwealth attorney’s office for addressing the root of the problem.