This is the second article in a three-part series on gangs.
For Modesto Police officer and gang expert Robert Gumm, the scenario is a familiar one. Standing in a teenager’s bedroom that is decked out in red and scrawlings of 14 and XIV, Gumm is confronted by a parent adamant that their child is not a gang member and that all the clothing, paraphernalia, and gangsta music are just part of a lifestyle, or a fashion statement.
“It never fails,” Gumm said. “They stand there and tell me over and over that ‘he’s not really a gang member. He’s just a wanna be.’ What they don’t seem to understand is that even the wanna be lifestyle can get their child killed.”
For some parents the battle to keep their children out from under the influence of gangs is a constant fight full of strife and anxiety. For others, Gumm says, denial and ignorance keep them from really seeing what their child is involved in and ultimately prevent them from helping their children.
Law enforcement agencies across the country agree that the most effective ways to deal with gangs lie in prevention and intervention programs aimed at youth and that the work has to begin at home.
“It’s going to take everyone working cooperatively to clean up the mess gangs have created,” said Lt. Gary Watts, supervisor of the Central Valley Gang Impact Task Force. “Because once they come up on our radar screen, it’s too late for prevention and intervention.”
The largest group of people joining gangs are teenagers down to children as young as eight, according to the National Gang Center. The center’s research into prevention and intervention show that the most effective deterrent to keeping a youth out of a gang is to have an adult take a positive role in their lives.
“If you are not there for your kids, the gang will be,” Gumm said.
There are key signs that parents should be watchful of that would signal a child’s involvement in a gang.
- The child is predominantly wearing one color specifically in their T-shirts, belts, sneakers, shoelaces and bandanas. Wearing one predominate color on a regular basis is an identifier to a particular gang.
“Some of the gang attire has morphed into fashion and some kids will wear it because they think it looks cool,” Watts said. “The scary part is that their look is so convincing that some rival gang takes a shot at them.”
- An all-consuming interest in certain gang-themed music or video games can be a sign that a child is coming under the influence of a gang.
“The media glorifies the thug lifestyle and kids pick up on these behaviors,” Gumm said.
According to the National Gang Center, some gangs use the violent video games to recruit and train younger members.
“If you take the time to listen to the lyrics, you’ll hear that there is a difference between mainstream rap and gangsta rap,” Watts said.
- If a child is suddenly showing up with new items like pricey sneakers, jewelry, clothing, electronics or even cash. These items could be “gifts” that gang members are giving them as a way to lure them in and buy their loyalty.
- Abrupt changes in who they associate with, their attitude or their school attendance and grades.
- Graffiti or writings on the belongings that uses a lot of Roman numerals, certain letters and numbers like M, N, 13 and 14.
“Everyone, especially kids, wants acceptance, security and structure,” Watts said. “If a child can’t find that at home, then they’ll find it with a gang and the gang will exploit those needs.”
Gang experts have offered several tips for parents to use to keep their children out of gangs.
- Talk to your child about gangs. Ask them if they know anyone involved in a gang and what level of association that person has with the gang.
- Know your child’s activities, friends and computer and phone usage.
- Make sure your child has adult supervision and/or activities between the 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. hours, which is considered the free time period when children can get into the most trouble.
- Support efforts in the schools and the community that promote a gang free environment, which can include everything from school dress codes to gang education programs.
To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.