By Greg Gelpi
Marking their territory, gangs vandalized three schools in Forest Park, emblazoning gang graffiti on brick walls and windows.
In response to the increasing presence of gangs in Forest Park, the principals of Babb Middle School, Forest Park Middle School and Forest Park High School, the schools that suffered $6,000 in damages, have called a town hall meeting.
School and law enforcement officials will present information on gangs and answer questions at Forest Park High School at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Gang activity has increased in the past year and small gangs are growing into bigger gangs, said Cindy Sellards, a guidance counselor at Babb Middle. She pointed to the death of a 4-year-old Riverdale boy, who was killed when two rival gangs had a shootout.
"If we can get the community to be aware of what's going on, we can hopefully put an end to it," Sellards said.
Babb Middle is the pilot school in the school system for GREAT, Gang Resistance Education and Training Program, she said. The program helps students learn about gangs and how to avoid joining gangs.
"There are a lot of programs out there, but not many of them are meeting with a lot of success," said Sharon Tracy, a gang expert from Georgia Southern University. "The kids don't go to the programs. You have to take it to them."
By monitoring and preventing strangers and high school students from coming on campus, Sellards said that the school is cutting down on gang recruiting. High school students often recruit younger students, getting them to join by performing tasks like spraying graffiti.
Older students are "jumped into the gang," suffering severe beatings to join gangs, she said.
"Prevention is the best thing you can do," Tracy said. "Once kids get involved, it's really tough to get out."
In the past 19 months, Clayton County police have made 650 gang-related arrests, seizing $196,000 in cash and $2.8 million in narcotics, said Lt. Mark Thompson of the police department's special operations unit.
"We're in a position in the community where we can see what's going on," Thompson said. "We feel like we're making a dent in their money-making operations."
Although there is a decrease in Asian gang activity, there is an "unbelievable" increase in Latino gangs that is "showing no signs of slowing down," he said.
The county is the midst of assembling a multi-jurisdictional gang suppression task force, Thompson said. Working in the gang culture, he will provide answers to parents' questions from the perspective of someone who knows gangs from the inside.
"You've got to get people involved or else it will get out of hand," Tracy said. "Georgia isn't any different from any other place, especially in larger metropolitan areas like Atlanta."
Whether a big city or a small town, a bullet still kills the same way, Tracy said.
Parents will be able to sign up and commit to taking actions to stop gang activity in the community.