Parents, teachers and friends must be alert to the risk factors that warn of possible gang involvement.
Pre-gang behavior usually begins at the elementary school age. Although there are no sure ways to predict who will join a gang and who won't, some risk factors include poor progress or achievement in school, truancy, lack of hobbies or something to do with leisure time, frequent or negative contact with police, drawing gang insignias, problems at home, tattoos, resides in a neighborhood where gangs are, has friends who are gang members or are "dressing down" in gang attire, wants to dress in traditional gang clothes (i.e., baggy pants, "khakis," oversized T-shirts, bandannas, dark sunglasses), wants too much privacy, starts to use drugs and hand signs, acts unusual, withdraws from family members, wears an excessive amount of gold jewelry, and wears sagging pants on hips or waist.
There are gangs in Lawrence.
Your child may already be aware of the signs of gang activity in the community. In recognition of this presence, Project Phoenix, the local gang task force, has been battling the emergence of gang activity since 1991. Recent criminal activities have proved that these efforts are not enough -- all members of the community must increase their understanding of gangs and talk with their children about the factors that cause gangs, if we are to eradicate their presence from our schools, neighborhoods and our city.
Gangs can be described as a group of individuals who form an allegiance for a common purpose and engage in violent, unlawful or criminal activity. They are not limited to any particular race, culture, economic wellbeing or colors.
There are a variety of reasons why youths join gangs. Some of these include the excitement of gang activity, peer pressure, attention, financial gain, family tradition and a lack of realization of the hazards involved. Often, kids aren't discouraged from gang activity by their parents because the parents don't realize their children are involved. Kids also are looking for acceptance, friendship and love. They are seeking a sense of self-worth and something to give them a purpose and direction in life. These youths want control over others, but conversely, want protection from their "homies."
Many times, these juveniles come from dysfunctional families or situations of abuse and neglect. They may be bored and lack other positive things to do, or at least that is what they claim. However, it is important to realize that gangs do not differentiate between poor, middle or upper class youths. All are vulnerable to the temptations and perceived status of gang membership.
Continual communication between parents and youth is one way to prevent gang membership. It is not enough for parents to "just say no" to this behavior. They must get involved with their kids, give them responsibilities and recognition, model appropriate behavior, communicate often and honestly, take a clear position on gangs and drugs, recognize the factors that place children at risk, make needed changes in the home, know their child's friends, teach them how to have fun and pay attention to the child's grades and attitudes about school.
The community must be more proactive in dealing with gang activity, especially graffiti. Graffiti is used to mark one sect's territory, to tell of its existence, to brag about superiority, to claim credit for a crime, or target the rival gang or gang member as a potential victim of a shooting or other violence. Graffiti must be removed as soon as possible. If assistance is needed, contact Community Corrections at 842-8414. Community service workers will paint over the graffiti at no charge.
Again, through Project Phoenix, which represents various community organizations and agencies, extensive documentation has been compiled to prove that gang members do live in Lawrence. Additionally, because of easy access to Interstate 70, Kansas Highway 10 and U.S. Highway 59, gang members from Topeka, Kansas City, Wichita and other areas come to Lawrence to recreate, socialize and commit crimes. It is evident by recent shootings that we need to be more proactive in our dealings with gang crime and mobilize as a community to take back what we are quickly losing -- our children.
The issue of gangs is not a police, court, school or family issue -- it is a community problem that is best dealt with by increasing one's own awareness and reporting gang activity to the appropriate entity immediately.
-- Elaine Hicks is director of Douglas County Community Corrections.