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Dying to Fit In

A death at Westside High School brought the "gangs in the schools" issue to the forefront. What are we doing about the problem?

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The scene was right out of a mentoring organization's handbook: six black professional men conferring with six black inner-city boys. All of the boys, leaned forward in their seats, listening attentively as the men discussed the boys' school lives, their friends, and their futures.

But the men were not mentors, they were lawyers. And the boys -- ages 13 to 15 -- were not mentees, they were clients, on trial for the September 14th murder of their Westside High School classmate, Tarus Williams.

During their two-day trial, more than 20 witnesses testified, detailing the final day of Williams' life and the defendants' newly formed "G-Unit," named after rapper 50 Cent's group. The court also heard about Williams' alleged initiation into the group, which involved a timed fight with another member. During the fight, Williams was tossed into a bathroom stall. Medical examiners said Williams' heart ruptured, causing the 15-year-old's death.

Tyrus Strong, Antonio Taylor, Damien Farmer, Jeremy Henderson, Artavius Branch, and Mack Lewis are now in the custody of the State of Tennessee Youth Services Bureau. Convicted of reckless homicide, they could remain in state custody until age 19.

Almost overnight, concerns about gangs in the schools moved from the streets to the front page. Parent organizations, community outreach programs, and law enforcement groups were jumpstarted into action. Memphis City Schools superintendent Carol Johnson spoke to ministers about helping students in the district. The Memphis Police Department held crime prevention forums. Shelby County district attorney Bill Gibbons visited middle schools, speaking about the dangers of joining gangs.

Yet, despite these reactions, many questions remain: Does the school system have a gang problem? Were other initiation activities occurring in the schools? But more importantly, what could be done about it?

Gang, Group, or Social Club?

Defense attorneys in the Westside case say the G-Unit was not a gang. "None of the boys involved used the word 'gang.' It came from the media and police," says attorney Coleman Garrett. "If any group of people that comes together not for illegal purposes [is a gang], then every organization is a gang, even churches. These boys wanted to be popular, but they didn't make themselves into a gang. We did."

Not so, countered the prosecution. "These boys knew what G-Unit was and that what they did was wrong," says attorney Terre Fratesi.

Memphis/Shelby County Metro Gang Unit detective Robert Elliott says the pattern of denial that exists in Memphis and in the school system contributes to the gang problem. "You're just playing with words," he says. "Gang, organization, misunderstood brothers -- it's still a gang if it exists to do criminal activities. Just because you don't know that it's a gang doesn't excuse the fact that you are committing illegal acts."

Part of the work of the 37-member Metro Gang Unit involves looking into school incidents that are thought to be gang-related. The unit also presents educational forums to parents and other groups on how to identify gang behavior. Although gang activity has recently become news, Elliott says gangs have long been a problem in the city and county schools. But county school administrators want their schools to be perceived as safe havens, and city school administrators worry about negative stereotypes, so gang-related incidents are often not reported as such, Elliott says.

So, does the school system have a gang problem? School board member Wanda Halbert says she never received a report from the school system about a gang problem prior to the Westside incident. And Memphis Police Department juvenile arrest records show that since the beginning of the school year, only four students with a gang affiliation have been arrested in schools. Those students, from Ridgeway, Fairley, and Kirby high schools, were charged with assault. Of the 480 serious offenses reported, including robbery and drug seizures, there is no reported gang affiliation.

But law enforcement officials insist that gangs do exist in schools and are actively recruiting members. One police incident report tells of a Westwood student on his way home from school who was punched in the eye for not representing a gang and voicing his noninterest in joining.

"We are a product of our community. There are gangs in the city of Memphis and whatever is in the city can be found in schools," says MCS security coordinator Sam Moses. His 30-member team monitors and responds to school alarms and crime calls 24 hours a day. "Many times, the schools, because of how they are zoned, wind up with kids in rival gangs in the same place. But everything you see is not a gang," Moses says.

Reppin' Your 'Hood

One reason gang-related incidents are difficult to track is because the number of gangs and gang members is difficult to determine.

The adult gang database maintained by the district attorney's office includes roughly 9,000 names but does not list juvenile members. To identify juveniles, police must rely on visible clues such as clothing or tattoos or an admission of gang involvement.

The four most well-known gangs nationally are the Bloods, the Vice Lords, the Crips, and the Gangster Disciples. (The Bloods and the Vice Lords are affiliated, as are the Crips and the Gangster Disciples.) These gangs, predominantly African-American, began emerging during the 1970s in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit. Offshoots of the original four gangs include the Latin Kings, 4 Corner Hustlers, and Krazy Ass Latinos (KALs).

According to Elliott, these gangs have thousands of members and are established and well-organized. While each of the major gangs has a number of "sets," or divisions, in Memphis local gangs are less structured and more vigilante.

"They are making up their own rules, wearing colors that are not consistent with traditional gangs, and making up their own cliques," Elliott says. "A lot of these kids have no structure, and the gangs just walk around beating kids up for no reason. You'd be surprised at what happens in Memphis and Shelby County."

For instance, membership in these nontraditional gangs -- the MS Posse, the Dirty Dozen, and the Pink Street Gang -- is largely based on where members live. "The kids here don't really know what gangs are all about," says Elliott. "Here you'll have a Crip and a Blood playing basketball together, whereas in places like Chicago and L.A., members say, 'We live it. We drink it. We breathe it.' Here, kids see their friends in a gang, and they want to be in it too."

That rationale leads to organizations like G-Unit at Westside and "false-flagging" (claiming allegiance to a gang without joining). Another Memphis variant is the short lifespan of the nontraditional gangs and the young ages of their leaders. In many instances, the O.G. (original gangster) with seniority in Memphis gangs may be as young as 16 or 17 years old, says Elliott.

Although many Memphis gangs are nontraditional, some of the tenets of gang life still apply. Members are identified by hand symbols and clothing. There is usually some type of rival gang tension. And crimes are committed.

Even though the opposing sides in the Westside case couldn't agree on the G-Unit's identity, they did agree that the members were looking to belong. Anti-gang literature distributed by the MCS Division of Parental Involvement and Family Support lists acceptance from peers as one of the six major reasons for youth to join gangs.

Acceptance was the key reason former gang member Melvin Turnage joined the Vice Lords. He became a member while in jail but was attracted to the gang lifestyle from the age of 10, when he and his drug-addicted mother moved to Memphis from California. "With my mom being on drugs, gangsters would be around all the time, and I became impressed with that lifestyle," he says. "I was attracted to the unity because I was lacking the bonding from my mom."

Turnage spent his youth commiting crimes such as robbery and drug sales. "By the time I got to jail my reputation had preceded me," says Turnage. "I had members from all the camps coming to me and asking me to join their gang. They knew I was down for anything. I was just ruthless."

Instead of the usual initiation technique of a "jump in," or timed fight with existing gang members, Turnage was placed on "bed rest" by Vice Lords in the jail. He spent those five days memorizing the history and rituals of the gang and then demonstrating his knowledge during an oral test.

"It's sad because kids don't know what will really happen once they get into a gang," he says. "All they look at is how cool it is to have 30 other people ready to have your back when you fight."

Paying the Time

As the saying goes, crime doesn't pay. And Shelby County district attorney Bill Gibbons is trying to get that message across by taking his version of the anti-gang message to the schools. Unlike the school district's message, which promotes positive supplemental activities and community participation for students, Gibbons' message is more about putting fear into the heart of any potential gang member.

Since last spring, Gibbons has spoken to 25 city and county middle schools as part of an anti-gang initiative aimed at sixth- through eighth-graders. The 25-minute presentation is a lesson in shock therapy. Along with gang statistics and information, Gibbons presents a slide-show of juveniles prosecuted for gang-related activities by the attorney general's office. During a recent visit to Hamilton Middle School, students buzzed as images of a former student at the school flashed on the screen. The student had been involved in an aggravated robbery and is currently in state custody.

"Most of our problems occur before or after school and sometimes as far as 10 miles away," says Hamilton Middle School principal Willie Rhodes. "But when authorities find out that the kid involved is a student here, then you hear 'Hamilton has a gang problem.' Our parental support is sporadic, and a better showing would really help with the discipline. Despite all that, we are making progress. Our school was the only middle school in the state that was successfully removed from the state's low-performing list."

Perhaps Gibbons' most important message is telling the youngsters that committing juvenile offenses will not result in lighter juvenile court sentences. Gibbons tells students: "If you choose to join a gang it is very likely that you will end up in jail for a very long time or, worse, end up killed at a very early age."

Each year, the district attorney's office prosecutes around 100 juvenile offenders as adults. Most of the offenses involve gangs. Gibbons hopes these prosecutions will become a deterrent for middle-schoolers as well as for older gang members who use juveniles for illegal activities. Tennessee law requires juveniles to be at least 16 years old before being tried as an adult, unless charged with serious offenses such as first- and second-degree murder, aggravated rape, or aggravated robbery. Juveniles tried in adult court in Tennessee may not receive a death sentence.

"We're going to do everything in our power to hold violent juveniles accountable for their actions. We want to change behavior," says Gibbons. "I don't get any pleasure from sending a 14-year-old to jail for 30 years, but that's the nature of my job."

Gibbons says that a gang problem definitely exists in city and county schools. "A few years ago, there was an understanding even among gang members that the schools were like mutual territory. They handled their business outside of school," says Gibbons. "I'm beginning to see a disturbing change in that. There have been several trends in gangs, including a lower recruitment age, recruiting across economic lines, and the fastest-growing membership is within middle-class families."

This blurring of economic lines has led to gang growth in suburban areas, says Elliott. And instead of committing the usual cash crimes like robbery and vandalism for gang initiations, these youngsters get money from their unsuspecting parents.

A Mother's Nightmare

Despite recent trends, the gang epidemic still disproportionately affects poor African Americans. During an outreach session presented by the Alcohol and Chemical Abuse Rehabilitation Center (ACAR) at the county's juvenile detention center, representative Ernest Townes notes that eight of the 11 girls in custody are African-American. Similarly, 25 of the 28 boys are black, and gang involvement is prevalent in both groups. Gang activities have landed several of the youths in the detention facility more than five times on charges including drug possession, assault, and gun crimes.

"Don't let your child become me. I was my mother's nightmare," the 52-year-old Townes tells a group of parents at a Kirby High School gang-violence seminar. Townes details his life, from drug dealing to the eight years spent in prison as an accessory to murder. "We have a problem and that problem is going to grow," he says. "Life has no rewind, and as parents we have to ask ourselves, Do we dictate, communicate, or vacate the job of raising these kids?"

Since his release from prison, Townes has dedicated his life to helping young people avoid the mistakes he made. In addition to his position at ACAR, Townes also operates a nonprofit outreach organization that targets youth in the juvenile court system. "These kids don't know what gangs are. I can tell them about grown men being shanked, or stabbed, and killed for simply associating with a rival gang member," he says. "I just hope they never get to the point that you get to in prison where your only thought is 'Better him than me.'"

At the detention center, Townes asks the offenders to complete a survey on their home life, gang activity, and drug usage. "The answers [to the survey questions] tell the story," he says. "You can tell that most of these students just need one person to take just a little interest in them. Unfortunately, most of these kids will end up incarcerated as adults."

No Deals

Gibbons says the "no deals" approach is working and that his nine-member Gang Prosecuting Unit has made a notable impact in decreasing the city's armed robberies, homicides, and gun-related homicides. "We estimate that there are about 5,000 hard-core gang members in Shelby County right now," he says. "Another 5,000 are active but may be juveniles. And another 5,000 are wannabes. If we could somehow rid ourselves of the gang problem, our violent crime rates would plummet."

According to Metro Gang Unit sergeant Andy Boyd, the problems are far-reaching, and the unit's hands are tied in their work within the schools. "We have no jurisdiction within the schools. We are only allowed in when invited by the principal and accompanied by a school administrator," he says. When invited in, the unit can examine backpacks and lockers for gang paraphernalia such as handbooks or drugs that bankroll gang activities. Much of the gang unit's information is provided by campus police. The Officers In Schools program puts 42 veteran Memphis police officers in middle and high schools. Middle school officers each patrol two schools. High school officers patrol one school, but may have as many as 1,500 students to monitor. Gang unit officers also park near schools and monitor students before and after school for signs of gang activity.

In addition to these law enforcement efforts, many groups across the city are preaching the message to parents that involvement is key and encouraging students to search for non-gang-related outlets for their time and energy. Are all these efforts working? It's probably too early to tell. But there's little doubt the Tarus Williams incident at Westside High School helped bring the issue into focus.

It seems a sad legacy for a 15-year-old boy to leave. •

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