RALEIGH, N.C. — The first step in fostering a regional collaborative effort to attack the growing problem of gangs is to admit there is a problem.
The second step is to focus on prevention instead of relying only law enforcement.
That was the message Wednesday of the Wake County Gang Prevention Partnership – a group of local leaders, law enforcement officers and other agencies aimed at preventing youth gang activity and violence.
"Small towns sometimes don't like to admit we have a gang problem or there's gangs," Zebulon Police Chief Tim Hayworth said.
Youth advocate Mary Jordan, however, says gangs are a serious problem all over the Triangle and all over North Carolina.
She believes there's an economic component to the denial.
"If there's a lot of emphasis placed on the fact that there's a gang problem in this area, there's going to be a mass exodus," she said. "People are going to leave."
That's why groups like the Wake County Gang Prevention Partnership are working to create awareness.
"Open your eyes to say there are gangs," the partnership's director, Shenekia Weeks, said. "Open your eyes to say that we are going to help our youth in any way that we can."
The partnership supports programs that keep young people out of gangs.
"Anytime you hear the word 'gang,' you're going to automatically get some emotion attached to that, and it's never positive," said Darryl Fisher, with the Wake County Public School System.
He said the school system is dealing with the issue in its middle and high schools and that denying the problem doesn't do anyone any good.
"If a kid is arrested for this, that's way too late," Fisher said. "So, on the school system side, our efforts have to really be toward prevention."
The partnership is working to have the month of May be recognized as "Youth Gang Awareness Prevention Month." So far, all 12 Wake County mayors and county commissioners have agreed. They are working to get Durham leaders on board as well.