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County leaders vow to turn tide on gang activity

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

More than 50 known gangs exist in Clayton County, according to Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner.

County leaders came together on Thursday night for a community forum on gangs at Mundy's Mill High School, in response to the gang-related deaths of four Clayton County students in recent weeks. More than 400 parents were in the audience.

The message from officials at the forum was clear -It is time to turn the tide against gang activity in the county.

"We've got to stop the blame game," said Terry Young, principal at Riverdale High School. His school has lost two students to gang violence this school year.

"Stop blaming the schools. Stop blaming the media. Stop blaming the kids. Stop blaming the police. It is going to take all of us, as a whole, to solve this problem," urged Young.

Within the last year, eight new gangs have been identified in Clayton, said Amy Kemper, a gang investigator for the Clayton County Police Department. However, she said there are two levels of gangs in the county -- large, national gangs and smaller subsets of those gangs. Kemper said there are at least five national gangs in Clayton County, and the rest are subsets.

According to Kemper, the new gangs, which have formed recently, are subsets. She also said gangs don't limit recruiting to high schools, but reach into middle schools.

"I've seen paperwork come across my desk for 12- and 13-year-olds," said Kemper. "A lot of times, gangs will recruit younger kids to distribute dope or commit other crimes, because they know the juvenile justice system will more than likely give them a slap on the wrist."

The school system, in conjunction with the Clayton County Police, has taken steps to curb gang activity. A student-identification-card program will be fully in place by the end of Friday, and "wanding," where administrators in middle and high schools, have authority to use a metal-detector wand in random checks for weapons, will also be allowed..

School Resource Officers (S.R.O.s) were recently given access to social networking web sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, on school computers to investigate reported posted messages suggesting gang involvement. Some Clayton gangs are on the sites in pictures holding guns or illegal drugs, Chief Turner said.

"We use those social networking sites as a tool to search out gang members," Turner added.

A Gang Resistance and Education Training (G.R.E.A.T.) program will be used in all 14 middle schools in January for the second year in a row. Seventh-graders take G.R.E.A.T. classes taught by local police.

"If a [school] social worker finds out a student is involved in a gang, then that social worker will call the child's parents and ask them to come in for a meeting," said John Walker, director of school safety for the school system. "They discuss what actions the parents and school system can take to help the child."

The Clayton County Police Department has a gang assistance hotline, where parents can get help if they suspect their child is involved in a gang. The phone number is (678)610-4147, and police try to contact parents within 24 hours.

Some signs of gang involvement include: changes in behavior, and clothing (where one color becomes prevalent); referring to friends by nicknames; a decline in school performance; bringing home items which the student could not afford on his or her own.