Parents gather to hear about gangs; details scarce
About 85 parents gathered in the gym of Jamestown Middle School after school hours on April 18 for a special PTA meeting about a problem few would associate with the suburban campus ‘— gangs. It was the largest turnout in recent memory, organizers said.
Sheriff’s Deputy and School Resource Officer Lindsay Welch opened the meeting with an inter-generational medley. The tunes morphed from the Beatles and Rolling Stones into Tear for Fears, finally ending on a long cut from NWA’s 1989 release Straight Out of Compton. As the sound of gunfire erupted between lyrics glorifying violent crime ‘— the meat and potatoes of the gangsta rap genre that has gone in and out of fashion during the past 15 years ‘— Welch began his presentation.
‘“This is what the majority of your kids are listening to,’” he said.
Principal Beverly Tucker called the meeting because of one or more recent off-campus incidents involving Jamestown Middle School students who were allegedly tied to local gang activity. She alluded to the incidents several times, but gave no specifics other than an approximate date in mid-March.
Billed as a gang awareness meeting, the bulk of the presentation focused on educating parents about common gang signifiers and practices.
‘“Yes, we are having gang-related activity in Jamestown Middle School,’” Welch said.
Parents in the audience frequently raised concerns about what they perceived as improper handling of gang activity among school administrators. The middle school shares its campus with Ragsdale High School, and some parents suggested gang problems might have migrated from the older students.
Tucker did not offer any details about specific incidents at the school, frustrating some parents who have had to rely on their children for information. One parent said high school gang members on the bus had harassed his son, but Tucker had no information about the incident.
‘“When your kids come home and say ‘Yeah, there were police cars at school today,’ you don’t know what’s really going on,’” said parent Sue Morrison.
According to the Guilford County Schools safety office, two gang-related incidents have occurred at Jamestown Middle since the beginning of the school year. A member of the staff at the school safety office could not elaborate on the nature or date of the incidents.
Spokesmen from the High Point Police Department and the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department could not identify any crimes involving Jamestown Middle School students as either victims or perpetrators. In addition, reporters were admitted to the meeting on the condition they not speak to any parents. When this reporter tried to ask parents for specifics about Jamestown Middle School, Principal Tucker told her to leave.
Robert Joyce, a professor at the UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill who specializes in the laws regarding public institutions, said, ‘“It is an open question whether PTA meeting even fall under open meetings laws.’”
He then he said that prohibiting reporters from asking questions probably did not violate any laws.
The vagueness of the presentation led some parents to conclude the worst. One parent of an honor-roll student objected when informed that gang conflicts were generally confined to members.
‘“I’m being told I don’t have anything to worry about,’” he said. ‘“But I don’t feel like that’s true.’”
All the angry parents at the meeting were white. Several black parents attended the meeting, but only one spoke up to try to curb insinuations that students should be removed for mere gang affiliation. Tucker told the parents she can only punish for actual violations of the student code.
‘“Gang members have just as much a right to an education as anyone else,’” Tucker said.
The school district does not label students ‘“gang members,’” wrote spokesman Chad Campbell in an e-mail. They do have rules against furthering gang-related activities. It can be considered an aggravating factor in other violations of the student code, Campbell wrote.
Instead, the principal has been lengthening suspensions of those students who violate student code and have also been tied to local street gangs. Since January, 11 students ‘— eight black, one Hispanic and two white ‘— have been suspended for longer than 10 days. Campbell did not specify why the 11 students were suspended. Long-term suspensions can be appealed.
Throughout the meeting, Welch and Tucker described the difficulty of definitively identifying gang members through clothes, music and graffiti-style doodlings. Fans of urban culture with no connection to gangs often co-opt such markers.
In addition, several gangs target specific ethnic groups. The Latin Kings are comprised of Hispanic studentsand the Vice Lords recruit Asians. At Jamestown Middle School, Hispanics account for 5 percent of the student body and Asians comprise 7 percent.
Detective Herbert Byrd of the sheriff’s department said that the gangs in Jamestown were not affiliated with national organizations. Neighborhood gangs composed of local kids have been involved in fights and petty crimes, but no major gang-related crime has surfaced in the town.
‘“These guys are vulnerable if they choose to go with some national gang member from California,’” he said. ‘“So far we haven’t had any violence like drive-bys, but it’s possible. It’s coming.’”
At the meeting, Welch presented parents with examples of gang practices from around the country. He used a segment from Hard Copy to illustrate what is termed a beat-in initiation. Welch said hopefuls must endure several minutes of beating by gang members to earn their admission.
Members who are jumped in must commit a crime to earn the gang’s respect, Welch said. In addition, women can be sexed-in, a practice that in its most extreme, involves choosing from among six condoms, five of which have been pinpricked, and having sex with HIV-infected men, Welch said.
Welch, who has worked in Guilford County School as a resource officer for 12 years, said he got his information directly from students. Tucker also related several anecdotes about drugs and weapons in the middle schools where she has worked as an administrator. Neither provided names or dates so the information could be verified.
Welch and Tucker advised parents to be aware of changes in their child’s behavior and watch for the signs of gang membership. On the administrative end, she brought up the idea of school uniforms, which would be a program that might be implemented in a year or two depending on parental approval.
Morrison said the meeting was the first she’d heard of school uniforms. Ultimately she said, she’s more concerned with general discipline problems and teachers attrition than with learning about gangs. Parents at the April 18 meeting were not allowed to air their concerns, she said.
‘“There are severe discipline issues all over Guilford County,’” Morrison said. ‘“We think there is a lot more going on than they’re letting us know about.’”
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