Sterling United Methodist Church leaders, members of the congregation and church neighbors filed into the auditorium in Sterling Park Wednesday night to learn about gangs.
Phil Moore, youth leader at Sterling United Methodist Church, said he received a brochure from the Gang Response Intervention Team (GRIT) six months ago. GRIT is a multiagency, multidiscipline organization whose mission is to target gangs in the area, educate the community about them and suppress gang activity in Loudoun County.
"It just sat on my desk for months," he said.
Two weeks ago, the Sheriff’s Office issued 16 search warrants, eight in the Sterling Park area, and searched the lockers of eight students at Park View High School, who may be involved with several assaults that occurred in the area over the last few months involving alleged MS-13 and 18th Street gang members.
The search warrants stem from three assaults that occurred in Sterling Park in January.
According to the Sheriff's Office, Jhonny Lopez, 19, and Eliseo Antonio Morales, 18, both of Sterling, have been charged in two separate assaults that occurred at Park View High School’s parking lot and a Sterling Park bus stop.
The Sheriff's Office reported that on Thursday, Jan. 25, Lopez and Morales allegedly assaulted an 18-year-old Park View High School student as he was getting out of his car to go to class. One week later, Lopez, Eliseo and Osmand Wilfredo Larios-Torres, 19, of Leesburg, were allegedly by the Sheriff's Office to be involved in another assault at a school bus stop along Providence Village Drive and Maple Avenue.
The two assaults are believed to be in retaliation for an incident that occurred at the McDonald’s on Sterling Boulevard Tuesday, Jan. 23. The suspects fled the area before deputies arrived at the restaurant.
The reported gang activity prompted the church to become more involved in the education process.
"We put all of those things together and realized it was time to go ahead and do this," Moore said. "We need to put gang issues on people’s radar."
ED RYAN is a member of the Gang Response Intervention Team (GRIT). One of his jobs is to educate county parents and teachers about local gangs and how to keep their teenagers out of them.
Teenagers join gangs for a number of reasons, Ryan said, but some of the biggest reasons they join gangs is to gain a sense of belonging, peer pressure and protection.
"Imagine you’re a 12-year-old kid. Four gang members are sitting on your front step. No parents home," Ryan said. "You either join or else."
Some teenagers are attracted to gangs for money and prestige, Ryan said. "They see the kids wearing the clothes they want to wear, they hats they want to wear. Basically, these guys pretty much sell themselves.
The GRIT coordinator advised parents to talk to their children everyday.
"Be nosey, ask questions," he said. "Where are you going? Who’s going to be there?"
It is also important for parents to involve their children in clubs, sports and other after-school activities. Gang members target children as young as 5 years old after school.
"Three to 6 [p.m.] is key," he said.
RANDY DUNCAN sat in the audience Thursday night, not only as the senior pastor of Sterling United Methodist Church, but as a parent of a student at Park View High School and a resident of Sterling Park.
"What are some warning signs we can look for?" Duncan asked. "How can we tell if we’re in danger or if there’s an area we should avoid?"
Ryan, a former probation officer, gave Sterling residents a few tips on gangs. They hang out in large groups, they wear the same color clothes and might have a lot of tattoos, he said.
"That might be an area to avoid," he said.
The most important thing, Ryan said, is for Sterling residents to trust their instincts.
AFTER THE NEWS of gang activity in Sterling Park, Moore met with some of the members from his youth group.
"They were showing me the different gang signs and these are good church-going kids," Moore said. "We tried to target the adults. We’re trying to learn. The kids already know."