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School system fighting gangs

By Ed Brock

ebrock@news-daily.com

Southlake Kiwanis Club member Paul James made sure to bring his son Adam to the club's meeting on Tuesday.

Adam, 11, will be going into middle school next year and James wanted him to know all he could about gangs, the subject of the club's program that day.

Mack Bullard, Clayton County Public Schools' director of Student Services, laid out to the club what steps the school system is taking to fight gangs in the classrooms. The first step is to be honest.

"We have to acknowledge when we have a problem," Bullard said.

The school system is now beginning to do that, but when he came here 10 years ago the attitude was one of denial. At that time, though, he was already seeing graffiti painted on bathroom stalls at the schools.

"I saw the writing on the wall ... literally," Bullard said. "That was a decade ago, but we didn't acknowledge that we had a problem."

Like James, parents want to know what the warning signs are that their child is getting involved with gangs and what they can do to stop it, Bullard said. So the school system is reaching out to parents, letting them know what they can do so perhaps they can keep their kids away from the gangs' influence.

And it takes the family's involvement.

"What a gang becomes is a surrogate family," Bullard said.

The gang has core values and beliefs just like a family, Bullard said, although those values are not shared by the rest of society. They encourage their members to use their talents, for example if a member is good at drawing they make him or her the artist for the gang.

There is one difference, though.

"Gangs, they require people to do things to show their loyalty," Bullard said.

That's when the gang members become disruptive at school. What the system has to do is change the mindset of young people, Bullard said, and teach them that it's not acceptable to most of their peers.

The school system has also identified gang members and leaders. It has conducted surveys of students, including those who are likely to influence other students into bad behavior, to learn what can be done to make them feel safe.

Among the responses were a cry for things to do after school, more parental involvement and more positive role models.

Adam James said he learned a lot from Bullard's speech.

"Really not to join anything. And never hang out with gang members," Adam said.

Paul James he doesn't think his son will really encounter many problems in the private school he attends in McDonough. But that's part of the reason why they send him to that school, James said.

Bullard's program is the second of three programs the club is holding on youth violence. Next week they will hear from a member of the Clayton County Juvenile Court.