Wednesday, October 20, 2004
Roanoke program aims to avert gangs
The Roanoke Sheriff's Office and Boys and Girls Club of the Roanoke Valley on Tuesday announced a $25,000 initiative to prevent Roanoke area youth from becoming gang members.
The Gang Prevention Program will be launched in a city whose police department says that Roanoke still does not have "gangs," per se - only groups of kids who get organized to commit crimes.
"Whether they're a gang or not, I don't care," said Roanoke Sheriff George McMillan. "They think they are. That's the issue."
Within the past few years, gang problems have cropped up in unexpected places such as Staunton, Lynchburg and the New River Valley. In June 2003, Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore formed the Gang Task Force to combat a growing problem across the state.
McMillan said "homegrown gangs are here in Roanoke" and he sees members in his jail, but he agrees with Roanoke police officials who say it is not yet time to give these groups the same status as well-established gangs in other cities.
McMillan said he hopes the Gang Prevention Program will prevent Roanoke from falling into that category.
"Working together, we can and will stop this problem from getting any worse," he said.
Boys and Girls Club has already started recruiting 150 kids between ages 6 and 18 who are believed to be at-risk for joining gangs. The goal is to track the kids' performance for a year and prevent at least 50 from becoming involved in a gang, said the club's executive director, Rebecca Emanuelson.
Emanuelson said pockets of the community tend to have the biggest problem with gangs, but "no pocket is immune." Many kids will be referred to the program by the juvenile justice system, school systems, churches and police. They will not be viewed as potential gang members, just kids who need some guidance and support, she said.
The Gang Prevention Program will operate after school at four locations in Roanoke: Forest Park Elementary, Lincoln Terrace Elementary, Roanoke Academy of Math and Science and the Boys and Girls Club.
Emanuelson said one of the best ways to help at-risk kids is to give them a place to spend their after-school hours with good role models. The club already offers programs that develop skills like problem solving, goal setting, leadership and substance abuse prevention.
Emanuelson said she hopes the kids in the program will have improved school attendance and performance. Club staff will talk to the kids specifically about gangs, hold awareness meetings for parents on a monthly basis and invite local law enforcement to speak to members.
The Boys and Girls Club approached McMillan earlier this year for help in funding the program. He agreed to fund it through the inmate telephone commission, made up of proceeds from the $1 inmates are charged for each phone call.
McMillan, who heads DARE, a drug and alcohol prevention program within the school system, said DARE officers will also begin to teach students the problems of gang involvement.
Roanoke police Capt. William Althoff said school resource officers already talk to students about gangs and street officers can point parents in the direction of programs like the Boys and Girls Club.
"Certainly we welcome any program that helps kids to get their feet square and target their future," he said.
He said it is still not accurate to liken Roanoke's group criminal activity to that of the dangerous gangs in other cities. But the department has increasingly begun to talk with the Roanoke commonwealth's attorney's office about whether certain crimes can be prosecuted under Virginia's gang laws, he said.
Those laws, like hate crime legislation, provide for stiffer penalties when there is a conviction.
"If you can get that conviction, that's where you go," Althoff said, "but each and every case has to be on its own and there is no sense in raising unnecessary concern or glorifying somebody and calling them something that they aren't when what they are is a criminal."