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Gangs Growing in Schools

School Board considers how to intervene.

Gangs are beginning to seep onto school turf. "Historically, schools have been safe havens," said Jim McLain, coordinator of school security. "We're no longer a safe haven."

At a School Board worksession on Monday, March 15, McLain reported that two gang-related incidents recently occurred on Fairfax County school grounds. At a northern-end high school, a student was confronted in a school library by a gang member with a gun. At a southern-end alternative school, McLain said, four gang members who weren't students of the school entered the building with baseball bats and beat a student.

"This is not school yard aggression. This is targeted violence, causing more serious injury. The problem will not go away. These are hard-core people," McLain said.

There are approximately 80 confirmed gangs in Fairfax County with 1,500 members, according to McLain, a number that is multiplying rapidly.

"Half are in our schools," said P.D. O'Keefe, information specialist, with Safe and Drug-Free Schools, Youth Section.

"There is no place immune any longer. The web out there is a strong one and our efforts need to be just as unified," said John Natali, Office of Hearing and Legal Issues.

SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill) wants a stronger curriculum to teach students the dangers of becoming involved in gang activity.

Currently, gang resistance training is lumped into the middle school and elementary school health curriculum on peer resistance. The curriculum doesn't even include the word "gang", according to Mary Marks, coordinator of Health and Physical Education.

"I'd like to put gang awareness into the middle school curriculum," Gibson said. "I don't want to dance around the elephant in the middle of a room."

Reaching students by the time they reach grades five and six must be a priority, said Judith "Tessie" Wilson, (Braddock). "By the time they reach middle school, many are already gang involved," said Wilson, who has organized a series of neighborhood meetings on gang involvement with Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock). "They are being recruited by 19- and 20-year-olds, so the skill of peer resistance is not particularly an issue," Wilson said.

THE SCHOOL BOARD DISCUSSED various ways to intervene, such as intramural sports and recreation programs for middle schoolers, many of which were cut in recent years.

"We must make sure children of poverty have access to it," said Brad Draeger, interim superintendent of schools.

Kaye Kory (Mason) said schools already face potential problems when students are kicked out of one school and sent to another. "I know in Mason District when a student is brought to another school, he brings his gang with him and the violence," said Kory.

Connection with adults is one thing that McLain said always helps deter students from joining gangs.

But second-generation gang members, who teach their children their way of life, are already impacting on youth in the county.

One kindergarten student came to school dressed by his parents in gang colors, said Cathy Belter (Springfield).