With more than 30 gangs operating in Fairfax County, several police officers were invited to speak on gang activity and child safety programs at a Herndon Middle School PTA meeting March 5.
"Most of the parents were asking questions that were along the lines of 'Is this happening here or in Fairfax County in general?' Parents think if it's not affecting their kids right now, they don't have to worry about it," said Lisa Lombardozzi, president of the Herndon Middle School PTA. "I was surprised at the number of various gangs operating in Fairfax County. I think more parents want to know what to look for and to know to stay away if that's a person in a gang."
DETECTIVE KEN COMPHER, with the Fairfax County Gang Unit, suggested that parents report all graffiti to local police whether they believe it is gang related or not.
"Most gangs in this area put up graffiti to mark their territory. Any graffiti should be reported to the local police," he said. He also suggested parents be aware of activities in their neighborhoods. "Watch for signs of suspicious activity, like kids congregating on street corners." While all gatherings are not gang related, suspicious activities should always be reported.
He also asked parents to be mindful of their own children. "If kids are showing signs indicative of drug use, it could be indicative of gang participation." The child may or may not being using drugs, but the signs for drug use are similar to those of gang involvement, according to Compher.
OFFICER LISA CAMMAROTA, with the Herndon Crime Prevention unit, was also on hand to provide information regarding student safety. She recently began a program in Herndon in collaboration with the National McGruff House.
"The program is a way for neighborhoods to promote the well-being of children. It's a good way to bring communities together. We are currently at Clearview, Herndon Middle and Herndon Elementary and are looking for volunteers throughout the community," she said.
Started in 1982, the program takes adult volunteers, such as teachers, parents and neighbors, and trains them with basic safety skills. They then post a McGruff House sticker in their house window alerting children they are participants in the program.
Then, when a child is lost or feels in danger, they have a safe house to go to. And, because the program is national, children moving in from another state will recognize the sticker and know right away there is a safe haven, whether they are lost, being targeted by gang members or simply hurt.
It also helps if parents actively engage their children in the program. Cammarota suggested, "Walk your children down the corridor they use to go to school, or on the way to the park where they play basketball and point out to them the safe houses along the way."
Cammarota chose the McGruff program because of its recognition among children. Ninety-nine percent of American children, ages of 6-12, say they know who McGruff is and 97 percent of those surveyed said they would do what McGruff asks them to do. She also liked the fact that the program requires complete background checks on volunteers and anyone in their home over the age of 18. Other similar programs may do a background check on the volunteer, but do not check everyone that will come into contact with the children. "The program is a collaborative effort with the police department, schools and parents," Cammarota said.