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Old 01-23-2005, 11:45 AM
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Default Growing up gangster

Growing up gangster

DISD schools prime recruiting turf as thug life makes resurgence

06:45 PM CST on Saturday, January 22, 2005

By TAWNELL D. HOBBS / The Dallas Morning News

It began as a party and ended in gunfire.

As partygoers mingled, latecomers approached the Pleasant Grove home and began shooting. Four teenagers, current and former Dallas school students, were wounded. Police said the shooting this month appears to be gang-related – one more example in a disturbing trend.

A decade ago, Dallas thought it had licked a serious gang problem. An intense police crackdown in neighborhoods and schools sent hundreds of gang members to prison. But many of them are back on the streets and back in business – and they're recruiting Dallas youths to the thug life.

Gang-related incidents in the Dallas Independent School District have more than doubled, from 92 in 2000-2001 to 245 last school year, according to Texas Education Agency data. The number of incidents in DISD is five times higher than in any other large Texas district, including Houston.

"We do have the older groups of harder gang core members out recruiting again," said Lt. Tammy Ellzey, who led the Dallas Police Department's gang unit for four years. "The schools themselves sometimes act as a magnet for gang activity."

Gang members have assaulted teachers and brutally beaten weaker classmates. They're enlisting elementary school kids to hide their crack cocaine and guns during police searches.

Dallas has seen a dramatic increase in gang membership. Last year, police reported an 83 percent increase in gang-related arrests. Police identified more than 5,000 gang members who belonged to dozens of "documented gangs" in 2004.

Gangs can be found throughout the city but are most active in southern Dallas. Police say Hispanics and blacks make up the majority of gang members in Dallas.

Most black gang members are connected to the Crips and the Bloods – gangs that formed in Los Angeles decades ago and now have a nationwide reach. The names of many Dallas gangs are variations on Bloods and Crips. Police say a Hispanic gang that originated in El Salvador, Mara Salvatrucha, is one of the most violent in the city. Some white and Asian students also are active in gangs.

The gang problem in Dallas and other cities may be even worse than what is indicated by the statistics. Dallas school officials, for example, don't report gang-related incidents to the state unless a student is kicked out of school for at least one day.

"I would assume that any gang-related activity may be higher than you see," said Billy Jacobs, senior director of the Texas Education Agency's safe-schools division.

School and police officials say the increased gang activity in the city directly affects campuses. Neighborhood problems invariably spill over into the schools, said Lt. Ellzey.

The increase in gang-related incidents is partly to blame for a rise in crime in Dallas schools. The crimes have run the gamut, from a 9-year-old arrested with a gun at Lida Hooe Elementary to two high-school students wounded by gunfire in a gang dispute. Student gang members often deal in drugs, a lucrative but dangerous business in which a youth can sell $2,500 worth of drugs in a day and make less than $100.

And for the students who join gangs, there are severe consequences. School and police officials say most drop out, and many begin a life that will ultimately lead to a prison sentence or a violent death.

Substitute family

From the time some children in Dallas are knee-high, they soak up the gang environment that permeates their neighborhoods. For many kids, the gang provides safety from rivals in other neighborhoods. The gangs can also give them the sense of structure that's missing in many broken families.

They learn the gang's chosen color, pick up mannerisms and discover what areas of town to avoid. They learn how to be tough and defy authority. Older gang members, with their souped-up cars and expensive jewelry, become their idols.

A crude ranking system determines whether a gang recruit will have an easy life or a perilous one. The lowest, most deplorable rank is the "crash dummy." These expendable members – sometimes students with learning impairments – are the first to enter a burglarized house or stay behind during drug busts.

Elementary-age kids take on the role of assistants. They hold the drugs and guns during police searches for fellow gang members. They don't receive much for their services, perhaps a new pair of shoes and acceptance by older gang members.

"I've taken guns off of kids that are age 10 and 11," said police Senior Cpl. Leroy Quigg, who, until a recent promotion had been a Dallas gang officer for more than a decade.

Some kids are ranked as "protected" and don't even have to join the gang to receive protection. Shawnbrey McNeal, a 16-year-old Madison High School football player, is one of them. He says he is free to roam the city, unlike some students who don't stray far from their neighborhood for fear of rival gangs.

"I go where I want to go," he said.

The gang believes that Shawnbrey's athletic skills are such that he will one day make it big – and will remember his 'hood.

"We wouldn't let nothing happen to him," said Steve "Red" Rowe, a 42-year-old who says he is not a gang member but has friends in two area gangs.

Some students are like Arthur Valentine. They joined their neighborhood gang because they've grown up around it. It's all they know.

Arthur, an above-average student at Madison High School in South Dallas, goes by the street name "Arkbark." The 18-year-old, who looks forward to graduating this school year, has been in his southeast Dallas gang so long that he doesn't remember when he joined.

Arthur grew up dedicated to his neighborhood – and its gang. People have died for the gang, he said. He's also a protector of sorts. As the highest-ranking member of his gang at Madison, "I take care of the young ones, make sure nothing happens to them," he said. "I always have to see what's going on."

But the laid-back student who speaks in a low voice has dreams. He wants to go to college and, one day, work for himself in sales. But will he ever leave his neighborhood gang?

"I'm going to represent my 'hood," he said.

A certain stance

The lives of student gangbangers are filled with boundaries and rules. Some kids won't talk to others in rival gangs. They shun certain colors. They won't congregate in certain areas of the schoolyard.

At Samuell High School in southeast Dallas, gang members hang out on designated corners. One student is a poster child for his gang. His jacket, T-shirt, bandana and even the swoosh on his Nike tennis shoes are in his gang's royal blue color. On another corner, a student displays a rival gang's color – red – with a large red rosary around his neck.

How someone stands can identify gang affiliation. For Antonio, a ninth-grade Samuell High student, standing with his feet in a V-shape comes easy. That's one way members of his gang identify themselves.

When asked, Antonio, like many male students, said he's quit gang life because he's now a father. But even as the 17-year-old utters the words, a police officer points out that he is still decked in his gang's color.

Since students often wear "colors" to show that they're part of a gang, Dallas school administrators are considering whether to recommend that all students wear uniforms. A recent U.S. Education Department report found that students in uniforms are better behaved, and their schools are safer.

Some schools, such as Spruce High School in Pleasant Grove, already have banned students from wearing certain solid colors such as red and blue, which represent two prominent gangs, the Bloods and the Crips. However, the rule is tough to enforce at Spruce – the school's colors also are red and blue.

Students also have simple ways to get around clothing rules. A pants leg rolled up, a certain color shoelace, or even the same haircut, can show gang loyalty.

Reversing a trend

Gang activity in Dallas reached a high in the late 1980s and early '90s.

During one week in 1989, a 17-year-old Dallas school student was shot to death during a party, a teacher's aide was shot and wounded at Samuell High School and gunfire in a hallway at Sunset High School sent students running for cover.

That wasn't all. Police also said 20 gang members had raped a 12-year-old girl and two teenage companions. Some residents fought back by forming their own anti-gang task forces. A Dallas City Council member also required police protection after gang members threatened him because of his anti-gang efforts.

The police formed a 60-member anti-gang strike force in December 1993. Several big busts later, life drastically improved for Dallas residents who had lived in fear. Police then began a significant reduction of the gang task force, from the high of 60 to 30 in 1994. More cuts followed.

With the renewed gang activity, that trend is being reversed. The department added four officers to the gang unit last year, bringing the total to 26 members.

Dallas school officials are also expanding their anti-gang efforts. In 2003, DISD created its own police force, now numbering 62 officers, and is beginning to turn more attention to the gang problem.

Houston school officials say they have fewer gang incidents because they have worked steadily over the last decade to keep the problem under control. All officers with the district's 165-member police force receive training in gang awareness. And the district works closely with city officials.

"It's a community problem, so collaboration is extremely important," said Houston ISD Police Chief John Blackburn.

Dallas school officials began discussing the increase in gang activity as early as 2003, according to memos received by The Dallas Morning News.

The memos tell a story of a district trying to get a handle on gangs.

"I continue to be concerned about the amount of gang activity that we are seeing in our schools," Mike Moses, DISD superintendent at the time, wrote in an April memo to the school board. "We are working very hard to have as much control as possible. Nevertheless ... we do need more help from parents."

Antonio Montanez is an involved parent. The 40-year-old Pleasant Grove minister visits Dallas schools, trying to thwart gang-recruiting efforts. But that has its risks. Gang members have threatened his life. Mr. Montanez even moved his children to a neighboring school district because of the threats.

"You can do what you want to me, but don't touch my kids," Mr. Montanez said.

Cpl. Quigg said that many parents are in the dark about their children's involvement in gangs, unable to decipher the complicated gang codes. For example, he said, some parents may think "BK" tattooed on their child stands for Burger King, when it actually stands for "Blood Killer."

And "CK" doesn't mean Calvin Klein, he said, but "Crip Killer." Various gangs use such initials to show their affiliation and their disdain for rivals, and a kid in a gang may wear a pair of British Knights tennis shoes or Calvin Klein pants because of the initials.

Just because a child prefers to wear a certain color or brand doesn't necessarily mean he or she is a gang member. There are other signs, however, such as staying out late, not going to school and communicating with friends using hand signs.

Unusual sayings also are a tip-off, such as "flagged out" – which means to put on their finest gang clothing for special occasions such as a party or a gang funeral.

'I hit him back'

Dallas school district employees have seen the influence of gangs grow on campuses. In a recent survey of 3,300 employees in middle and high schools, 70 percent said gang problems in the district are getting worse.

Diane Birdwell, a teacher at Bryan Adams High School, carries a cleanser to school to wipe off gang graffiti written on her desk. Ms. Birdwell said she's been threatened by student gang members, but the majority know better than to mess with teachers. However, she said, there are a few hardcore gang members who are into recruiting and will do anything to make a name for themselves.

"They control the hallways," Ms. Birdwell said. "They use intimidation."

At Madison High School, student Arsida Smith was confronted by an outside gang member on the second floor of his school – right in front of the principal. The gang member punched Arsida in the face.

"I hit him back, and we had a fight," the 16-year-old said.

A school police report later called the incident a dispute between rival gangs. Arsida denies the label but said he is a friend to his neighborhood gang.

Marvin Eldridge is the gang member who fought Arsida that day. The 18-year-old, who goes by the street name "Big Pudge," said that he was at the school – which he does not attend – to offer protection to a fellow gang member and that he was provoked by Arsida.

Big Pudge can't say when he joined his southeast Dallas gang.

"I growed up around it," he said. "I liked to fight off the top."

Big Pudge enrolled at Madison in 2000 as a ninth-grader. He was kicked out for fighting in 2003 – still classified a ninth-grader. He's working on his GED but doesn't plan to leave his gang when he gets it.

The gang, he said, is family. He admits the gang commits crimes, but he says it's not without a reason.

For example, he said, before a drive-by shooting is carried out, "We look at the situation and see if a drive-by is needed."

Underneath his jersey is a gunshot wound. He said he was shot in the back by a homeowner after breaking into the homeowner's house. The bullet is still lodged in his neck, he says.

Big Pudge wants to be a mechanic and build race cars one day. But whether he leaves his gang, he said, "is up to the Lord."
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