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Archive for Thursday, April 22, 1999

NO COMMUNITY IS IMMUNE, POLICE SAY

April 22, 1999

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Parents need to be on the frontline of watching for signs of danger in their children, police and others say in light of another round of school violence.

Just like Littleton, Colo., Lawrence has its share of disaffected teen-agers, children who don't fit into one group or another.

Local outcasts and gang members also could pick up guns, make homemade pipe bombs and commence a rampage that has shocked millions of Americans who are left wondering something no one -- not the teachers, not the psychologists, not the experts -- can answer: What is wrong with society today?

"People might be thinking, 'I'm glad I live in Lawrence,'" Douglas County Sheriff Loren Anderson said Wednesday. "But people in Littleton were glad they lived in Littleton -- till yesterday."

The violence that unfolded Tuesday at Columbine High School after two students dressed in black and rumored to be part of the so-called "Trenchcoat Mafia" began shooting at will isn't limited to Littleton, Colo., or Jonesboro, Ark., police say.

A Lawrence Police Department detective and officer recently updated the community on gang activity in area schools, telling parents, "This is serious for your children."

Lawrence has seven active gangs and about 492 gang members and associates, members of Lawrence Police's special investigations unit said at a presentation last month at Woodlawn School. They showed parents information on various gangs such as their signs, habits, colors and tattoos. Things that seem minor can indicate gang affiliation, Detective Mike McAtee said, and can mean something to gang members.

Police track Lawrence's gangs and their members, Sgt. George Wheeler said.

"We have several officers that are assigned specifically to keep track of gang activity and youth that are involved in gangs, either as members, associates or hangers-on," he said. "There's several identifiable gangs in Lawrence. Some are homegrown, some are affiliated with other groups.

"We also maintain files of people involved in gang activity. We send letters of notification out to parents of people that we contact who are gang members."

Wheeler sees Tuesday's events as a societal problem in general.

"It takes people working in concert with each other to deal with people outside the mainstream," Wheeler said.

While being a loner isn't a crime and wearing dark clothing doesn't necessarily mean someone is a ticking bomb about to detonate, anti-social behavior does need to be taken seriously, he said.

"It's a signal," Wheeler said.

It's up to parents everywhere to recognize signs of problems in their children, the spokesman added. Other risk factors might include moody or erratic behavior.

"The foremost responsibility would lie on the parents to know what their kids are doing, know who their friends are and what clothing they're wearing," Wheeler said, adding, "A little intervention goes a long way."

Douglas County Assistant Dist. Atty. Shelley Diehl, who prosecutes juveniles, says school violence mimics society in general.

"It's a microcosm of society at large," she said. "It's in our videos, movies, music, Nintendo games. We worship 'Rambo.' We worship Bruce Willis in the 'Die Hard' movies."

What Diehl wants to know is where were the adults who should have been supervising the two Littleton students who apparently killed themselves in what officials there were calling a "suicide mission."

"How much time do these kids have that they can make pipe bombs?" she asked. "Where do they get the guns?"

Diehl sees a generation growing up without personal accountability.

"It's always somebody else's fault," she said.

-- Deb Gruver's phone message number is 832-7165. Her e-mail address is dgruver@ljworld.com.

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