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Gangs recruiting at middle schools

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By Diana Hefley and Kaitlin Manry
Herald Writers
MARYSVILLE -- Concerned about violence and gangs in their school, about 200 students walked out of Totem Middle School in March. Three weeks later, a handful of Totem students faced off in a suspected gang confrontation before school.
Parents and kids say their fears about gang activity in Marysville are building and more needs to be done to rid schools of gang influence. In Marysville and elsewhere around the state, kids are joining gangs at younger ages than seen in the past, gang experts said.
Police have found gang members in middle schools across Snohomish County, said Everett police detective Kevin Fairchild, a member of the state's Gangs in Schools Task Force.
"Middle school is where the ideas are being introduced, and, in some very rudimentary ways, grooming is going on in elementary school," he said. "And while a lot of times it's misconstrued as 'kids being kids,' it's taken a different tone now."
Some kids may just be emulating a style of dress, but others are taking part in criminal activity, such as graffiti, vandalism and fights, Fairchild said. The kids involved may not cut it as hard-core gangsters but they are exploring the gang lifestyle and engaging in criminal behavior, he said.
"They're testing the waters," Marysville police school resource officer Bronwyn Kieland said.
Kieland works at two Marysville middle schools and the alternative high school. She sees kids getting caught up in the idea of being in a gang. They flash hand symbols, affect a certain type of fashion sense, and draw gang symbols on their school notebooks. Some are bona fide gang members and are committing crimes. Others are taking a risky path toward trying to just fit in, experts said.
"Kids at the middle school levels are kind of searching for their identity, so they're a little bit susceptible to being pulled into a gang if they're not involved with other pro-social activities," said Tyson Vogeler, who supervises school safety and security for the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. "Middle school kids are typically on the fringe and we're starting to see they're affected by gangs."
Middle schools throughout the state are dealing with gang problems that have emerged in the last two to three years, he said. For the most part, the problems involve kids wearing gang colors or using gang symbols, but occasionally middle school students are actual gang members.
Make no mistake: Gangs are recruiting middle school students, he said.
Many middle and elementary schools in the state are initiating programs aimed at preventing kids from joining gangs. Some use the nationwide Gang Resistance Education And Training program, which targets fifth- through eighth-graders. Others identify susceptible kids and connect them with mentors and counselors who provide support and encouragement to stay out of gangs.
School dress codes also are becoming more common. In Marysville middle schools, the dress code forbids wearing gang insignias and outfits with certain color combinations.
"Gang dress is not tolerated," Marysville Assistant Superintendent Gail Miller said. "Gang symbols are not tolerated. Any gang activity is not tolerated. I don't know if it matters if it's middle school or high school. I don't see it differently."
From September to February, there were five gang-related incidents at Marysville's three largest middle schools, Miller said. Most involved students wearing gang colors or drawing gang signs.
While she believes the gang problem in Marysville is small compared with other communities, she said she takes it very seriously.
Some parents disagree.
Dale Wagner would like administrators to ban all clothing with gang colors. His eighth-grade daughter participated in the walkout at Totem Middle School and he believes administrators aren't taking the kids' concerns seriously.
"They don't want to accept it," he said. "They kind of want to ignore the problem and it's going to blow up on them."
Doug Rosen said his seventh-grade son, a Totem Middle School student, has personal experience with the gang problems. Professed gang members have sent his son threatening text messages and bullied him on campus and off, Rosen said. He doesn't know if the kids involved are real gang members or just wannabes, but the district needs to spend time and money figuring it out, he said.
"There's too much of the blue bandanas, the wannabes," the stay-at-home dad said. "I don't know how deep it really goes."
Miller has decades of experience on the issue. She watched gangs infiltrate schools in Tacoma while she was an administrator there from 1980 to 2001.
"My past experience in Tacoma was the middle schools were sometimes grounds for recruitment for older gang members, which is why we watched the middle schools so closely," she said.
The mere presence of gang members or associates at a school does not mean it is unsafe, said Vogeler, facilitator of the state Gangs in Schools Task Force.
Lawmakers last year called for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to form the task force to address gangs in schools. Educators, police and prosecutors have been meeting for more than a year to gather information about trends and problems with gangs in schools. The task force also must develop prevention and suppression plans to tackle gangs in schools.
Nationwide, police are seeing more gangs in the suburbs and communities similar to Snohomish County. There is less pressure from police, and gangs are finding fertile markets to sell drugs, steal cars or commit other crimes, said detective Steve Haley, who tracks gangs for the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office. The gangs also find many receptive young people in the suburbs who emulate the thug lifestyle celebrated in pop culture.
Police from around Snohomish County conducted a gang survey over the summer and found gang members in every part of the county. Detectives identified 250 gang members and 200 associates from about 20 different gangs.
The countywide assessment found most gang members here are between 15 and 19 years old. The majority are white, even though they are claiming membership in gangs that traditionally are black or Hispanic, Haley said.
The gangs tend to be more homegrown than in the past, Everett detective Fairchild said. In the 1980s and 1990s, the last time police saw a surge in gang activity, much of the trouble was linked to Seattle and Tacoma gang members committing crimes in Snohomish County.
"It's becoming more organic. These kids live here," Fairchild said.
Police say there's some reluctance to acknowledge that gangs are here and becoming an increasing problem.
"It's not really perceived as an issue, and that's a significant problem," Fairchild said. "We need to start now to take it seriously before it's too late."
Reporter Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463 or

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