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Gangs Recruiting Young

Gangs on Rise

July 10, 2002

Fairfax High School is a no head-gear zone. The way someone wears a baseball cap or bandanna can be a sign of membership in a gang, so several years ago head gear was outlawed on school property, said Jackie Anderson, former PTSA president.

Gangs are a presence in Fairfax County and can be found not only in the local high schools, but members are getting younger.

"I don't think people realize there are gangs in Fairfax County let alone in a certain community," said Det. Ken Compher, a member of the Fairfax County Police Gang Investigations Unit. "There are 15 to 20 gangs we deal with on a regular basis."

Compher said there is at least one gang member in every high school in the county, with the possible exception of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Gangs now recruit children in middle school because the members know children less than 14 years old cannot be charged as adults for committing major crimes.

WHILE THE POLICE may be aware of the gangs, which are defined as a group of people who form an allegiance for a common purpose and commit violent, unlawful or criminal activities, to what extent they are an issue inside the schools is debatable.

"I don't know of any myself," Anderson said. "There are people who congregate together, but I don't know of any problems. We really haven't had to deal with gangs."

Vicki Greene, on the other hand, has no illusions about gangs. As the county Department of Community and Recreation Services program manager for Region Three, which includes the teen centers in Herndon, Reston and Centreville, she knows there are gangs in the communities. She also knows some of their names.

"Our teen centers are gang neutral. There are no gang colors, no hand signals, no head gear, no slang. They know the rules if they want to come into one of our programs," Greene said. "I haven't had a problem. I know some of our young people are members, but we set the tone and they understand the teen center rules."

Greene said her programs are aimed at gang prevention, teaching the teens such life skills as anger management and conflict mediation.

"We work with it through our several clubs," Greene said. "It's a grave concern. Gangs are very prevalent in the area."

But gangs are not necessarily prevalent in the schools, said Kenton Pattie, a board member of Partnership for Youth and the Fairfax County Council of PTAs health, parenting and safety chairman.

"When the police talk about an increase in gang activity, it is not an increase in the schools. It's an increase in the community," said Pattie, a father of Woodson High School graduates. "As far as the schools go, I don't think anybody has statistics on that."

He said, according to the updates the two groups get from the police, most gang activity takes place outside of school either in the evenings or on the weekends. However, gangs do present a problem for the schools.

"Gang activity results in kids being in school caught up in the legal system which does disrupt the school."

Pattie, however, is not prepared to say parents have nothing to worry about.

"I couldn't assure any parent today that there aren't any gangs in their kids' schools," he said.

He said the community, school officials and the police need to sit down and figure out how serious a problem gangs are in the schools and create a plan to do something about it.

SO HOW SERIOUS a threat are the gangs? Compher said there are more than 2,000 people, including students, that affiliate themselves with gangs in Fairfax County.

But Fairfax County Police Chief Tom Manger said that figure needs to remain in perspective.

"I still think the vast, vast, vast majority of kids are not involved in gangs," said Manger. "But it is not something we can shrug off."

The exact number of gangs is hard to estimate because smaller gangs are sometime absorbed into larger ones. For that reason, the names are often changing as well, but the county does have a few larger gangs that can also be found in urban cities such as Los Angles and New York.

The police decline to publicly name the more prevalent gangs, citing public safety reasons. In addition, the police will not say what communities are more likely to see gang activity to avoid turf wars between rival gangs.

"In the last three weeks, there have been four gang-related crimes in Northern Virginia and last week one gang-related homicide [of a West Potomac graduate in Hybla Valley]," Compher said at a June 27 work session with the School Board. "Gang-related activity is up 62 percent since November."

The largest gang in the county is estimated to have 800 members and is not what police call "homegrown." Instead, the gang members made their way from Los Angeles and travel across the country recruiting new members.

"The gang is becoming very organized," Compher said. "It's not at organized crime status yet, but if it's not checked, it could be."

EACH HIGH SCHOOL in the county has a school resource officer (SRO), a Fairfax County Police officer assigned to the local high and some middle schools, who works closely with the gang unit. The SRO also gives presentations to the students to educate them about gangs.

"The SRO program is the best we have as far as getting information to the kids," Compher said.

The gang unit, which has eight full-time detectives assigned to it, will also do presentations for parents and other community groups. A pamphlet prepared by the police warns parents that such things as sudden poor grades, withdrawal from the family, change in friends, use of hand signals, development of a bad attitude, changing of appearance and graffiti can all be indicators of possible gang involvement. The police recommend parents become involved in their child's education, get to know their child's friends and to communicate with their child.

"There are probably a number of kids out there that are involved in gangs and their parents are clueless," Manger said. "The parents that constantly ask their kids questions, look at their kids’ computer, know their kids' friends, are the ones who will know if their children are involved in gangs."

Typically, gang members tend to be between the ages of 13 to 21 years old, have low self-esteem, feel like they don't get enough attention at home and have a hard time making decisions and communicating with others.

"There are many reasons why kids join gangs, but a big part is feeling like they belong," Manger said. "At 13-14 years old, kids feel lost and want to feel like they belong to something."

Compher also said the county does have neo-Nazi and skinhead groups, but they are not tracked by the gang unit.