Newton High School hosted their first gang awareness forum Thursday night in an effort to get parents involved and to provide them with more information about gang issues in the school. Parental attendance, however, was strongly lacking at the meeting, a fact NHS principal Dr. Roderick Sams addressed.
"I had hoped this room would be full," he said, addressing those in attendance. "But, at the end of the day I still believe that Newton County wants what is best for our children. I just think some people are in denial, but the issue is not going away and the only way we are going to solve it is together."
The assembled group was given a presentation on gang awareness information by Newton County deputy James Fountain who serves on the gang task force and is also a resource officer. Fountain gave parents and teachers a definition of a street gang and told them that the schools are a breeding ground for gang activity.
As gang members are identified at local schools, resource officers and administrators keep track of what gangs the students are affiliated with and how many students are active participants.
At Alcovy High School there are an estimated 100-200 active gang members, affiliated with the Lost Boys, Crips and Gangster Disciples. At Eastside there are between 25-50 active members and they are affiliated with the Bloods, River Walk Boys/Bangers and the Settlers Grove Posse. At Newton High there are between 100-200 estimated active members, and their affiliation stretches wider then with the other two schools. NHS members associate with the Bloods. Crips, Black P Stone Nation, Zone 6, Third Ward (Nelson Heights), Fifth Ward (Covington) and Fourth Ward (DeKalb).
Fountain also showed parents and teachers what gang writing and tagging looked like, some of the clothing favored by members, graffiti found in the high school and around the county, hand signals, and some of the signs that students might be involved or interested in becoming involved in gang activity in the community.
"When we show parents the drawings we find a lot of them will say that it is just doodling," said NHS assistant principal Sandra Owens. "They don't want to admit their child is involved."
According to Fountain, if parents believe their child could be in a gang, then they probably are.
"Youth gang involvement is not a new phenomenon in the United States," he said. "Gangs have been known to exist in our country since the 18th Century. Philadelphia was trying to devise a way to deal with roaming youth disrupting the city in 1791. According to the National School Safety Center, officials in New York City acknowledged having gang problems as early as 1825. The gang problem is not likely to go away soon or to be eliminated easily."
Fountain stressed the importance of staying vigilant and watching for changes in students such as an increase in violence and cutting school and changes in attitude and wardrobe, as well as doodling certain signs and insignias.
"It [gang activity] has infested this community," Sams said. "And a lot of people don't want to recognize it. I'm an optimist by nature and I am optimistic that we can work together to solve this problem, but first we have to realize that it is a problem."
Sams also urged parents to look at their children's MySpace pages and to check their cell phones, telling them not to worry about invading their children's privacy.
"There is no such thing as privacy in your home. You have a right and an obligation to find out what is in your home. You bought those computers and those cell phones - not the students - and you have a right to find out what your child is doing with them."
He continued, telling those in attendance that 90 percent of the students in Newton County do the right thing.
"Unfortunately," Sams said, "Many of the parents that we need here are the ones that are not here tonight."
He urged those in attendance to spread the word and inform others parents what they had learned at the forum and also said NHS would have another one in the future.
"Just because these problems are not in your home or your neighborhood doesn't mean they aren't your problems," Sams said to the assembled parents. "It's going to take everyone to solve this. We aren't Atlanta or Chicago or Compton or Los Angeles, yet. And we certainly don't want to get there. We've made a commitment to solve this problem, but we need your help."
For more information on gangs in the county, visit www.newtongangs.org