Police give teachers a primer on gangs

One lesson: how to spot the danger signs in children's scribbles and teens' clothing

Quick: What's the significance of two students sporting baseball caps – one of the Kansas City Royals and the other of the Boston Red Sox?

Answer: A simple rivalry between favorite baseball teams.

Or so you might think. But if neither student is a big sports fan, the Red Sox cap, adorned with a "B," could mean membership in the "Bloods," a street gang. The blue "KC" cap, if accessorized by other blue items and a blue-and-white bandanna, could signify that the student belongs to the "Crips" – the Bloods' fierce rival.

The dress code is just one aspect of gang culture that a group of Lynn, Mass., public schoolteachers studied up on recently during a course called "Gangs 101: Keeping Our Schools Safe."

The pilot program, a collaboration between law enforcement, a state social services agency, and the Lynn Public Schools – gave teachers a close look at the city's numerous street gangs and their potential for violence in schools. "Teachers are usually our first line of defense," says Bob Hogan, an officer in the Lynn Police Department's gang unit. "If we can help them be more aware of what gang culture is like, or why a student might join one, that will greatly help us."

His sentiments echo a recent study by the United States Secret Service, which found that most school shootings are preventable. The agency, along with the Education Department, is holding training sessions this summer on how schools can pay better attention to students' social problems and any behavior – not just gang activity – that may foreshadow violent acts.

The writing's on the wall

The Lynn teachers say the Gangs 101 course had positive results right away.

Nancy Conway, director of the Welcoming Elementary School, says she noticed a second-grader scribbling something. Because she had taken the two-month course, she recognized it as a gang symbol.

"I didn't realize students that young would be interested in gangs," she says, adding that the problem is more noticeable among fifth- and sixth-graders at the alternative school.

Ms. Conway decided to invite one of the gang officers from the course to speak to the boy.

"I think [the boy] was more afraid that people were going to make him get into a gang, since his older brother is in one," she says. "But I know it was relieving for him to know the police would back him up – and I haven't seen him draw any more gang symbols."

She adds that another teacher, who also had a heightened awareness of what students were drawing, confiscated an elaborate map that pinpointed where a gang brawl was to take place over the weekend. The teacher gave the map to the gang unit, which arrived at the scene and prevented the fight from taking place.

'Mind-boggling' weapons

During the two-hour classes, teachers also gleaned a firsthand look at weapons seized from Lynn youths on the street.

Machetes, stun guns, brass knuckles, knives, and glass cutters were among items decorating a long table.

"These weapons are just mind-boggling," says Allan Tattle, a guidance counselor and 40-year veteran of the Lynn alternative schools. "We don't see those weapons in the schools.... But the potential for student violence has become an unfortunate reality that we must all deal with."

In Lynn, a working-class former factory town of about 85,000 people, law-enforcement officials have identified more than 600 active gang members. Beyond the Bloods and Crips are groups such as "Asian Boyz," "The Tiny Rascals," and "Piru."

"I certainly didn't grow up with gangs, so these courses have been a real education for me in what to look for at school to prevent violence and bullying," says Ellen Patterson, a fourth-grade teacher at Welcoming Elementary.

A window into gang culture

Keeping up with the gang culture, she says, isn't easy. In just one week between Gangs 101 classes, officers identified three new gangs in the area, and explained how to spot members.

The teachers also learned the three R's of gang culture: reputation, respect, and revenge. Such knowledge, says Ms. Patterson, has helped her better understand how to prevent students from joining gangs.

During one class, for example, three current prison inmates visited to share their reasons for having joined a gang – and why it's so hard to leave.

"They mentioned their rough home life, boredom, and the need for a sense of belonging as reasons to join," Patterson says. But when they contemplated leaving, some of them said they knew they would get beaten up by every gang member before being able to sever ties. "Still, they say their worst mistake was not having left the gang life, since they wound up in prison," she says.

Many Lynn residents say recent citywide efforts to reduce the number of gang members have helped.

Officers in the Lynn gang unit, just over a year old, say the fact that they follow the gangs more closely than ever has reduced gang violence. The gang unit has also been able to better enforce a new Massachusetts law that makes it a felony to coerce a person to join a gang. The crime carries a possible three- to five-year sentence.

Providing alternatives

Since the gang course, teachers at Welcoming Elementary say they have sought new ways to involve students in after-school activities such as sports.

Right before the kids leave for the summer, a time when gang activity is at its most intense, the gang-unit officers come in for one last talk.

"Students don't always take us seriously when we talk to them about gangs," says fifth-grade teacher Susan Burke. "But when they see kids going to court, and even going to jail [under the new law], and when the gang officers come to speak to them, they start to pay attention."

Ms. Burke says the school is working to continue the gang- education workshop in the future.

"I would have loved for it to go on all year.... It's so crucial that we are able to reach our students at a young age – before they wind up in gangs."

• E-mail your comments to sara@csmonitor.com

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