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Mar 23, 2006

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Parents Take Notice: Pay Attention to Kids, Or Else
Gang prevention: 101

By Tara Slate Donaldson
The Gainesville Times

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Sometimes gang involvement is easy to spot; tattoos and t-shirts prominently displaying the names of well-known gangs, walls graffitied with threats and teenagers throwing hand symbols.

Sometimes it's a little harder to tell.

Lying on a table in the Stonewall Middle School auditorium Monday night were a Yankees baseball cap, two bandanas, a basketball jersey and a school notebook covered in doodles. The innocuous items were mixed in among other not-so-subtle items -- a large flag from El Salvador labeled with the well-known gang name MS-13, a large hand-carved wooden plaque bearing the same name, and a machete.

All of the paraphernalia has been seized from gang members, said Sgt. Greg Pass, head of the county police Gang Prevention Unit.

Pass was on hand at the school on Monday night to talk to parents about gang prevention. Street gangs first appeared in Prince William County in 1992 and have been a growing problem here ever since.

Parents at the meeting wanted to know how to protect their children from gangs operating inside schools. But according to Pass, the big problem isn't that innocent children are being attacked by gangsters; they're being recruited by them.

Belinda Caraballo-Fernandez is the gang prevention and intervention specialist for Price William County Schools. She told parents on Monday that in many parts of the country, innocent bystanders are very often caught in the middle of gang violence.

But that isn't happening here.

What is happening is that gang members are recruiting children as early as elementary school and they're looking for members that don't necessarily fit the stereotypical idea of a gangster.

"Every one of our kids is at risk," she said. "They are touching every part of the community."

The important thing, Pass told parents, is to be on the lookout for signs that your child is involved in a gang.

Sometimes it's obvious.

Sometimes it's not.

Flipping over the Yankees cap, Pass revealed the MS-13 logo written on the underside of the brim, all but invisible if the wearer keeps the brim down. Holding up the yellow bandana, he pointed out the letters CLCS -- an offshoot of MS-13 -- written in a small and faint script. The blue bandana bore a similar message -- a small six-pointed star and the word "blue" reveal that the bandana belonged to a member of the Crips.

In both cases, the tell-tale signs are too small to be noticed by a casual observer.

The basketball jersey also looks like every other jersey in the world -- except that its number is 13. And a closer inspection at the school notebook reveals that some of the doodles are gang references.

Even knowing what to look for, and where to look, doesn't always help because the styles change so frequently.

"It's the flavor of the week, folks," he said. "Today they may want to wear blue. Tomorrow they may want to wear black, the next week they may want to wear yellow."

So what can parents do?

Pass said there are a number of signs to watch out for. Apart from the obvious indications that a child is headed for trouble -- failing grades, problems with police and school officials or a new group of friends -- parents can also keep an eye out for key words, symbols and clothing.

The best place to start is in a child's bedroom.

"I personally feel that your kid's room is a Fourth-Amendment-free zone," he said, adding that it's better to check your child's room now than to wait until the police show up with a search warrant to do it.

Look at clothing and notebooks for references to numbers and letters that could be short for gang names, he said.

The number 13 is one of the most common gang symbols. The most prevalent gang in Northern Virginia, MS-13, is not the only gang that uses the number. Members of several gangs often bear tattoos of their letters or the number 13. The signs may also be written on clothes or seen in graffiti or doodles.

A more subtle sign is the eyebrows. Some members, Pass said, shave a single stripe into the left eyebrow and three stripes into the right eyebrow to signify 13.

And while MS-13 is the most popular gang in the region, it isn't the only one. The Southside Locos, 18th Street, Surenos, Bloods, Crips and Black Gangster Disciples all operate in Prince Willliam, along with countless local offshoots and homegrown groups.

If you're not sure, there's an easy way to check.

"Computers, computers, computers," Pass said.

Young gang members use and other online meetups to socialize. Check the history files on your child's computer to see what pages they've been viewing, he said. Or run a word search for specific gang names and see if anything turns up on the hard drive.

And if you find references you don't understand, try Googling them, he suggested.

Clothing colors are also a hint, although Pass warned that it's not a failsafe sign of gang involvement.

More telling than the color, he said, is that gang members tend to dress alike. A child wearing blue is not necessarily suspicious but a group of children wearing blue may be.

Pass said that the trendiness of gangs presents a problem for children and police. It's not just the actual gang members who cause trouble; the "wannabes" are just as bad.

"These are kids that want to be in a gang and look like fools doing it," he said.Those children tend to dress and act like gang members and often commit crimes, trying to prove themselves to actual gang members.

But the "wannabes" are often in more danger than they realize.

"You go out representing a gang, the rival gangs are not going to question you," he said, adding that there are a number of cases in which teens have been badly beaten by gangsters because they appear to be members of rival gangs.

Pass advised parents not to let their children dress or act like they are gang members. "It's not criminal, no, but just for safety reasons and common sense," he said.

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