Schools try to counter gang problem

July 20, 2010 3:45:38 PM PDT
Sixteen year old Juan Almanderiz says he tried hard to fight the temptation of joining a gang.

As a freshman, he was expelled from a Wake County high school over an act of vandalism involving friends who were gang members.

"I was just lost," he recalled. "I wasn't in control of my life."

He sees kids in middle school struggling too.

"I know some kids now that are in middle school and are afraid to go to school because of the gangs, that's not even right. It's supposed to be a safe place," he said.

State officials say they know the problem of gangs in school is not getting better.

"We know that gang presence in schools has increased," said William Lassiter with the North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs.

Lassiter has also written a book about school violence.

"A lot of these kids are already involved in violent behavior," he explained.

There's plenty of statistical data to back up Lassiter. ABC11 looked at a recent Raleigh Police Department report that shows police responded to 283 gang related incidents in Wake County high schools in the last year.

There were also 282 incidents in middle schools and 25 in elementary schools.

Twenty of the elementary school incidents were acts of representation - wearing gang related clothing, flashing hand signs, or drawing gang signs in notebooks.

Five other incidents were much more serious:

· A 4th grader was charged with vandalism for drawing graffiti on a bathroom wall.

· A 3rd grader told another student his gang member brother would beat him up.

· A 4th grader threatened another student for drawing gang graffiti.

· A 5th grader was caught with a pocket knife.

· A 5th grader was accused of robbery with a dangerous weapon for using a steak knife to take money from a classmate.

Despite the seriousness of the accusations, Lassiter warns school officials have to be careful how they punish such incidents.

"By kicking them out, we're actually encouraging that gang activity," he explained.

Putting kids on the street only leads to more trouble. Raleigh police say they see it firsthand.

"In my opinion a lot of them are lost souls. They're just wandering through our community trying to find some place to fit in and if the gang appeals to them, that's going to be our challenge," said Chief Harry Dolan.

Of the more than 400 teens locked up in youth detention centers across North Carolina, 40 percent admit they're in a gang. Experts say lock up isn't the best answer - the real solution starts in schools.

"We cannot arrest our way out of this problem. We've got to start when the child is 5, 6, 7 years old and first showing an interest in getting involved in gangs and get involved at that point and prevent them from getting involved," said Lassiter.

The state is spending $11 million in federal stimulus money assessing the gang situation in every county. Some counties - like Wake and Cumberland - that have already done that, are spending their share on intervention programs.

They're programs like Second Round Boxing where teens like Juan Almandariz are getting a second chance at life.

"It just helped me out emotionally, physically and mentally," he said. "It has put me in control."

In control of his temptations too - this is neutral territory where no gang colors, signs, or clothing is allowed.

Only kids who want to turn their lives around like Juan can come, and he says he's also fighting to get back into school.

There are intervention services available across the state. To learn more, go to http://www.juvjus.state.nc.us/county_services.html

To learn more about individual schools and the number of acts of violence that are reported, go to www.ncreportcard.com.

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