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Suffolk gang problems discussed

The Suffolk Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office came to John F. Kennedy Middle School on Friday with the Suffolk Police Department to explain to students the very real dangers of gang activity.

Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Derek Colvin was joined by Patrol Officers K. Gaines and D. Jackson of the Neighborhood Enforcement Team for the Friday presentations. The trio spoke to roughly 550 students from sixth to eighth grades in the auditorium throughout the day, according to Principal Bryan Thrift.

“It’s a great overview to give the kids some knowledge on what’s going on, and if someone approaches you, how to deal with it,” Thrift said.

Colvin and the officers didn’t shy away from the brutal consequences of being in a gang. Headlines on the PowerPoint pointed at gang members being arrested for murders and shootings and convicted with life sentences, if not murdered.

“What we’re talking about specifically is gang violence,” Colvin told eighth-graders on Friday. “We’re focusing on gangs, because becoming a member of a gang or associating with gang members is about the quickest way you can find yourself in the criminal justice system.”

Middle schoolers around the ages of 12 to 15 are frequent recruitments targets for gangs. Some even recruit as young as third or fourth grade, Colvin said. Gangs will groom these children with gifts and favors, then take advantage of them to commit crimes on their behalf.

It’s not just the poor or disenfranchised that are targeted. It’s boys and girls from all different backgrounds and in any neighborhood in the city, Colvin said.

“They try to convince you that they can give you something that you can’t get from anyone else. Something you can’t get from your mentors or your family. They will try to convince you that they are your family,” he said.

Jackson highlighted some of the warning signs of gang activity: Changes in a student’s appearance, behavior and language. Tattoos on the students and graffiti in their neighborhoods. Using drugs and alcohol and possessing a firearm are also signs that a student may be in over their head and need help.

“It’s not just a downtown problem,” Jackson said. “We’re seeing it on the northern side of the city as well.”

The officers answered the students’ questions alongside Colvin and emphasized how important it is for them to reach out if they’re being pressured by a gang, or if someone they care about is in a similar situation.

They also made the consequences clear for those engaged in these criminal activities. The Code of Virginia states that a juvenile 14 or older may be tried as an adult for specific crimes, such as those committed by gangs.

A predicate criminal act — such as assault and battery, destruction of property and burglary — that’s willfully committed by an active gang member is a class 5 felony.

Colvin said that those that go out to commit these crimes don’t often go out to commit murder. Things escalate quickly, and shots are fired wildly. “Bullets don’t have names,” they don’t stop and innocent people get caught in the crossfire.

Even if someone wanted to help a friend burglarize a home and is just the lookout, that person is still just as liable as the one breaking in.

“If you help a friend commit a crime, you’re just as guilty,” Colvin said. “If something happens inside that home and someone gets hurt, you will be responsible for that as well.”

All of this destruction is for nothing, Colvin added.

“Gangs achieve nothing, except going to prison or an early death,” he said. “They want you to believe that you’re achieving something, (but) it’s a lie. They’re not doing anything for you.”