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Perspectives from the field of Child and Youth Care

The face of gang recruits is changing

When 52-year-old Anna looks at baby pictures of her now 18-year-old twin sons, sadness and guilt overcome her. "The feeling comes up, 'Where did I go wrong?' I have felt this plenty of times," she said.

Local school and law enforcement officials say it is a nagging question that more parents across Sumter County, the state and nation are asking themselves as they face the stark reality that their own children are not only gang members, but also that they are being recruited to join these violent, law-breaking groups at an alarmingly early age – 9 or 10.

"The gangs are getting to kids early," said Dr. Frank Baker, the superintendent for Sumter School District 2. Fourth- and fifth-graders are being recruited by older siblings or neighborhood kids and they, in turn, are trying to recruit their classmates on the playground. This has left elementary school teachers and administrators dealing with discipline matters involving bullying and intimidation. "We're seeing an increase in extortion tactics – 'If you pay me $1 or $2, then I'll make sure this doesn't happen to you or no one will bother you,'" Baker said.

In addition, officials say, the family background of today's gang recruit has changed from years past. While the public historically has been told that kids living in poverty and homes that lack fathers or positive male role models are the most vulnerable, evidence indicates that the middle class, affluent and two-parent home structures are now among the fastest-growing groups to be targeted.

The face of the new recruit is not only younger, but often a student who has had little or no discipline problems, has earned good grades, is involved in extracurricular activities and has the support of both parents who are active in their children's lives and education. "These parents are mortified that their child would be part of this," Baker said. "Now we're beginning to wonder, what is the draw?"

All of this leads local school and law enforcement officials to address the issue of gang intervention and prevention with a new sense of urgency.

Sumter County law enforcement and the county's two school districts have teamed up to pursue federal funding that would allow officials to implement a Gang Resistance Education And Training, or GREAT, program, which could help combat the growing gang problem by focusing efforts on educating more parents and children about gangs. The program's Web site,, touts the initiative as being a "school-based, law enforcement officer-instructed classroom curriculum. With prevention as its primary objective, the program is intended as an immunization against delinquency, youth violence, and gang membership."

Funding for such a program would come at a critical time. Federal grants have dried up, forcing several of the state's school districts to relieve their school resource officers – uniformed police assigned to school campuses – of their duties. Sumter 2 lost its high school resource officers after budget cuts forced a choice between keeping teaching positions or paying officers' salaries. Sumter 17 absorbed the cost so its officers could stay on.

As for the proposed GREAT initiative, Sumter County Sheriff Anthony Dennis has said he and his team have looked at a model program in Gainesville, Fla. There also have been discussions about working closer with the county's two alternative schools to infiltrate possible gang affiliation there. One proposal was to create a military boot camp setting with the hope of rehabilitating wayward youths. That, however, seems unlikely, Baker said. "It was discussed but put on the back burner," the superintendent said.

Both school districts report that students who struggled in their assigned school settings have actually found success at the districts' alternative schools. Parents and students alike have even requested to remain at Brewington Academy – Sumter 2's alternative school – even after being told that they could transition back to their assigned schools, Baker said.

So while it is not yet clear what the GREAT program might look like, officials agree that local schools and law enforcement would work together. In fact, they say, law enforcement will become more involved with the public school system.

"Sumter 17 is fortunate to have a close relationship with Sumter law enforcement," said Shelly Galloway, a spokeswoman for the school district. "Sumter 17 has a zero-tolerance policy for gang activity in our schools. School resource officers – uniformed police – assigned to school campuses – have worked proactively to inform parents about trends and to dispel myths that only students from a certain socioeconomic or demographical group are recruited."

"This affects all students," she said.

Education is key
Officials agree that educating parents about gangs appears to be a key to reducing their recruitment. But getting the word out has not been easy. The county, city and both school districts have all hosted several gang awareness community meetings, but parent turnout has been consistently low. One Sumter 2 meeting, which featured Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, drew 10 or 12 parents, Baker said. The district brought in Lott and his gang prevention team because Richland County has been attempting to educate surrounding communities about a notorious gang and drug cartel that hails from the Charlotte area, Baker said. The Chicago-based gang Folk Nation, which has North Carolina ties, is thought to have made its way down to Kershaw, Richland and Lexington counties. Authorities say it is feasible that the gang could fragment into surrounding communities, including Sumter.

Gangs demonstrate their particular alignment by "representing" through symbols, colors, graffiti, hand signs and words. The signs can be anywhere – spray-painted on or carved in tree trunks in rural Rembert and Pisgah, tattooed on a teen's body, scribbled on a notebook or shaved into a haircut. Still, parents and guardians are often clueless.

Anna, who shared her story on the condition that her identity and that of her sons be withheld to guard their safety, said she had no idea that one of her twins had been initiated into a gang until it was too late. She remembers one spring day that the twin, "Jay," disappeared. It wasn't the first time, though. "I was driving around, calling around looking for him," she said. He showed up hours later, badly bruised, but not visibly upset.

"He wasn't acting like a victim," she recalled. Anna said she questioned her son, but he claimed he didn't know who had attacked him. He also asked her to not call police. She did anyway. And when the police questioned him, he stuck to his story. "It wasn't that he couldn't tell us who had done this," she said. "He just wouldn't."

Years later, during an intervention session with a counselor from the state Department of Juvenile Justice, Jay admitted that he was a gang member and that he had been beaten into the gang that spring evening. He was only 11.

She has doubts about his twin's affiliation with the gang. The twin, "James," would hang out with Jay but often stopped short of participating in some of his gang-affiliated activities. James is serving an 11-month sentence for burglary. Although it is not the first time he has been arrested, Anna said she believes James has taken the fall for his brother. "I sometimes say, 'God, what did I do to cause this?' Then I have to remind myself that it was the influence of the street," Anna said.

Like many parents, Anna said the signs were always there but she dismissed them. "They would only wear white T-shirts and the same pair of jeans; and they stopped bathing," she said. "They acted like they didn't care about anything."

Their biological father died when the twins were 15, but their stepfather had been a part of their lives since they were toddlers. Her sons began showing deviant behavior at the age of 10 and by the time they were 14, she said she felt she had lost all control. After being repeatedly suspended and ultimately expelled, both sons dropped out of school.

"I think back to how it all started – the lying, stealing my money and my jewelry, cutting school," she sighed. "The school would call and say they weren't in school, but I knew I had driven them to the bus stop. "I had these children in church. I had (Jay) singing on the choir, people were talking to him about God," she said. "They were in the Boys and Girls Club. My husband tried to discipline them. We took them on family vacations to show them things, but the street still got them."

Anna believes a close male relative from Columbia recruited Jay. She said the relative would come to visit and would tell her sons about life in his neighborhood, and the gang members on his street.

Baker has witnessed parents like Anna who learn the grim truth after being adamant that this couldn't happen to their family. One father, he said, cried in his office when his son reluctantly admitted that he had been in a gang since seventh grade. The boy had not been a discipline problem. He made good grades, and his parents had been visible at school functions.

Baker said it was hard to sleep that night. "I sat here wondering if we could have done more as an educational system," he said. "I thought, 'How could this have happened. Did it happen under our watch, at school or in the community?' Some kind of way, they were able to infiltrate and get to him."

Officials are quick to point out that gang activity is not unique to the Sumer area. While gang activity has long been associated with large, urban cities, it has only been in this decade that many South Carolina communities have begun to aggressively tackle the problem.

A 1998 study requested by the South Carolina Attorney General's Office concluded that the state "had no less or more serious a gang problem than any other state," but "South Carolina stands out when it comes to gang denial."

The Attorney General's Office now produces resource materials for the public. A directory, which can be accessed online, provides the names and contact information of agencies trying to combat gangs in South Carolina. The directory also includes information about the findings of the Gang Prevention Study Committee, appointed by the Legislature. The committee more recently reported that criminal gang activity has spread throughout the state, posing a significant threat to communities through illegal drug sales, extortion, robbery and murder.

Anna says she not only fears what her son Jay can do because of his gang affiliation, but she also fears what can happen to him. Unable to cope with the dangers, she recently kicked him out of the house.

Sharyn Lucas-Parker
30 August 2009

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