The photo projected on the screen at Meadowdale High School Tuesday night could have been that of any extended family of teens and adults: all smiles and gathered for a group portrait on the Edmonds waterfront.
In reality, those in the photo were members of Surenos 13, the most common street gang in South Snohomish County, said Sgt. T.J. Brooks, a Lynnwood Police Department gang expert. Most of those pictured in the Edmonds waterfront photo are no longer in the area, or no longer belong to the gang. “A lot of the kids were underlings. We went to the parents and they got out,” he said.
But getting teens out of a gang is much harder than keeping them from joining in the first place. And that was the motivation behind Tuesday night’s gathering, a Gang Awareness and Education Community Forum sponsored by the Edmonds School District, the City of Lynnwood and Edmonds Community College.
Brooks and others who spoke agreed: While it’s tempting to back off, especially when faced with a confrontational teenager, parents should stay involved with their middle- and high school-age children. That means listening to your kids “not just talking at” them, said Brooks, himself the father of a teen daughter. It also means knowing exactly where they are going and who they are hanging out with, and that requires extra diligence, such as double-checking with the parents of a friend when told that is where your child is supposed to be spending the night.
Street gangs have increased their presence in Snohomish County (more than 50 gangs have been identified here), and all of them are involved in criminal activity, ranging from drug dealing to robbery to homicide. And, Brooks noted, “it’s everyone’s problem. Not just the cops, not just the schools, not just the parents.”
And because Hispanic gangs are more prevalent in South Snohomish County, Edmonds schools are increasing their outreach to Latino teens. One of the most active groups is Colores Unidos, a club for Latino students that meets weekly at Edmonds-Woodway High School and provides members with a chance to develop leadership skills and perform community outreach activities.
According to Brooks, there are several early signs of gang activity that parents should watch for:
A significant change in dress style, hair style or choice of friends. Bandanas used to be commonly carried by gang members, and they were displayed during the presentation along with assorted gang paraphernalia. However, “a lot of gang members are not carrying bandanas anymore because they want to go undetected,” Brooks said. Gang members also sometimes have tattoos displaying gang names and/or symbols. You should also be concerned if your child has a new group of friends and is secretive about who they are and where he or she is going with them.
Possession of or a sudden interest in firearms, knives or other weapons. Brooks said gang members will carry “fake gun compressed air guns used for target shooting that are available for $29 at area sporting goods stores” and use them to threaten others. But just pointing one of those guns at someone is second-degree assault, he noted, and could get your child killed if someone thought it was real.
Going out in unusually large groups.
Exhibiting a new fear or dislike of police.
A loss of interest in school or sports. “Declining grades is the number-one indicator that something is going on,” Brooks said.
Gang graffiti on personal property, such as a notebook.
Injuries such as cuts or bruises that could have been caused by fighting.
Displaying a false sense of bravery, including bragging about how tough he/she and his/her friends are, and becoming unusually confrontational.
In addition to the importance of establishing and maintaining regular communication with your child, Brooks offered the following suggestions for thwarting gang involvement:
– Know your children’s friends — and their parents — and be involved with their activities.
– Know where your child spends his or her time after school, in the evenings and on weekends.
– Be involved with school activities and talk to your child’s teachers and counselors.
– Be a role model: Your child will act the way you act.
Recommended resources for parents:
The following community resources are available to parents who want to learn more about gangs, and ways to keep their kids safe:
The Gang Help Line: 425-388-6666, for Snohomish County residents, this line is monitored daily for families who need help, gang members who want out, or concerned residents reporting gang activity or graffiti.
Cocoon Project Safe: 425-317-9898 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Provides intervention and support to parents experiencing difficulties with their teens.
Snohomish County Children’s Commission: information on gangs plus resources for parents.
National Youth Gang Center: The latest research about gangs; descriptions of evidence-based, anti-gang programs; and links to tools, databases and other resources.