- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The gang violence this summer has prompted regional school systems and authorities to take unprecedented measures in preparation for the upcoming school year.

At Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt yesterday, 400 school administrators and security personnel from the D.C. area learned how to identify signs of gang involvement among students and heard pleas from police to share what they learn from students.

“You need to dig and find out what is going on in the school. Who are the players?” Officer Rob Musser, of the Montgomery County police gang unit, told the school officials.

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“What are you going to do with that information? Well, I hope you don’t sit on it. We can share that information as long as we don’t violate any privacy issues.”

Maryland law prohibits school officials from volunteering information about students involved in incidents in school. However, Officer Musser said, school officials can respond to information requests from police, and can skirt identification issues by providing a student’s nickname.

“You’ve got to get people to work on their hunches,” Officer Musser said after the meeting. “They don’t want to because they don’t want to misidentify. But I’m saying, ‘Confirm or deny. Don’t sit on it.’”

Also this week, Fairfax County and Richmond schools are holding weeklong camps for a small test group of students aimed at keeping them out of gangs. Officials hope to expand the camps next summer.

Police officials said yesterday that there are nearly 7,000 gang members in the D.C. area. About half of them belong to the largest and most violent gang, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, which is 92 percent male and 99 percent Hispanic. There are 40,000 MS-13 members nationwide, police officials said.

A hundred of the attendees at the conference yesterday were law-enforcement personnel. The rest were school administrators and school security officials from across the region, stretching from Northern Virginia to the Chesapeake Bay and into Southern Maryland, said Mike Fisher, training coordinator for Prince George’s County Public Schools, who organized the conference.

“Schools so far have been a sanctuary,” Mr. Fisher said. His concern was that although law-enforcement agencies have educated their members about gangs, schools have not.

Schools and county governments are following the region’s police departments in their response to the gang problem. In 1993, six police investigators met in private to discuss gangs. That group has grown to nearly 500 law-enforcement, school and government officials, and is called the Mid-Atlantic Regional Gang Investigators Network.

Officer Musser emphasized that enforcement is only part of solving the gang problem. Intervention and prevention are integral as well. Schools, families and churches play significant roles on this front.

“Schools can become fertile ground for young people to join gangs,” said Andre Hornsby, chief executive of Prince George’s County schools. “Gangs are smart. They’re good recruiters, and they know how to infiltrate a school environment and take control.”

Glenn Ivey, state’s attorney for the county, told the crowd about his conversation with a juvenile, who told him that gangs tried to recruit him on a daily basis and asked Mr. Ivey, “What are you doing on the other side?”

“We’ve got to have an answer to that question,” Mr. Ivey said. “Because if we don’t, we lose.”

Officer Musser said official estimates on the number of gang members nationwide have jumped from 4,800 to 731,000 since 1999. Much of that increase, however, is the result of improved record keeping, he said.

“We should be concerned about gangs because of the rate at which they’re increasing,” Officer Musser said.

Within Montgomery County, he said, the police department’s most recent estimates found 209 gangs and roughly 2,349 gang members, an about 50 percent increase from the year before. Officer Musser said 45 percent of gang members in the county are ages 14 to 19.

Dirk Cauley, incoming assistant principal at Kennedy High School in Wheaton, is entering a school with a high percentage of black and Hispanic students, who make up the majority of youth gangs.

“It’s important that we as educators recognize the problems we’re up against. Learning what’s attractive to them is important because we need to learn how to counteract it,” Mr. Cauley said.

“If you don’t address the issues of the gangs, it destroys the culture of the school.”

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