Education

Early intervention needed to combat gangs

Posted February 16, 2010 6:10 p.m. EST
Updated February 16, 2010 8:27 p.m. EST

— Middle school is a time when young people are beginning to figure out what path they will take in life, and it appears as if joining a gang is one of their options.

Russ Smith, senior security director for the Wake County Public School System, says students in grades 6-8 – as young as 11 years old – have been involved in 42 percent of gang-related activity reported in Wake schools so far for the 2009-2010 school year.

Last year, Smith says, 47 percent of the 677 documented incidents of gang-related activity – anything from wearing clothing that shows affiliation with a gang to defacing school property with gang-related symbols of slogans – involved middle school students.

"I think we're seeing a lot of students that have been exposed to gang activity, and they're emulating that on our campuses," Smith said.

Capt. Andy Nichol, who oversees the Raleigh Police Department's two Gang Suppression Units, says that there are about 3,000 gang members in Raleigh associated with 56 different cliques or sects. Of those, 10 percent are 18 years old or younger; 50 percent are between 18 and 22 years old.

"You're really not surprised anymore," Nichol said. "The names, the faces change, but the crimes pretty much remain the same."

Nichol says that one of the reasons people of younger ages are becoming more associated with gangs is that adult gang members often use juveniles to commit crimes because the penalties they face under the law are less severe.

"They're enticed by it," he said. "Obviously, we know they're looking for a sense of belonging and gravitate toward that."

That's why intervention, as early as possible, is necessary.

"The sooner that we can intervene in a situation, the success rate with addressing that behavior increases," Nichol said. "(We) take the small things seriously so it doesn't erupt into something violent."

In school, Anthony Muttillo, principal of West Millbrook Middle School, says the key for helping to keep the hallways safe is identifying and stopping any gang activity as soon as staff becomes aware of it.

"At the first sign – a doodling on a notebook that could be gang-related – we're going to call that student in. We're going to talk to that student," he said. "We're going to call the parent in, get them involved."

Outside the classroom, nonprofit programs like Second Round Boxing are helping to address the problem.

The program uses boxing, weight training and other forms of exercise, boxing program director Matthew Schnars says, to try to help young people get out of gangs, keep them out and keep them in school.

"It's an opportunity for them to shine under a different light," Schnars said. "They can learn it as a sport and learn to be athletes, as opposed to hurting each other and hurting their communities."

The mentoring program, offered by Haven House Services in downtown Raleigh, has nearly 300 participants, both male and female, ages 9 to 22. More than 200 are from Raleigh; others are from elsewhere in Wake County.

Participants must go to school and maintain a C average and clean record to stay in the program.

"We've got to give them the positive role models – people to interact with – and give them other options besides the gang lifestyle," Nichol said. "You've got to really work with them over an extended period of time so you can gain their trust and (they) feel you're on their side."

The program is seeing success.

After spending more than two years in prison for kidnapping and drugs, 18-year-old Jaime Diaz realized he needed to get out of the gang lifestyle.

"I was looking for love (on the streets). I didn't have at home," he said. "When I went to jail, I was like, 'No, this ain't my life. This is not for me.'"

Another program participant, who identified himself only as Reggie, joined a gang at age 15.

"There was something missing at (my) house, so I went out to the street to get it," he said.

After two stints in prison, Reggie, now 24, is back in school and has a job because of the program.

"They went to bat for me. They show me there's other people out here in the world that actually care for you," Reggie said. "I sleep a lot better at night. I'm less stressed out. I think clearer."

"There's so much I can do with my life, so many places I can go that I haven't been yet," Reggie said. "I don't want to miss that."