September 12, 2007
by Ogi Overman - Editor
(Part one of an ongoing series about gang activity in Guilford County)
Last September, Corporal L.G. Welch was attending a presentation at Ragsdale High School. He walked into one of the school's bathrooms and immediately caught sight of the graffiti on the walls and in the stalls. In a simpler day and time it may have been a “Kilroy was here” drawing, but in 2006 it wasn't Kilroy who'd been there but three gang members representing three different gangs. To the untrained eye, the symbols may have meant little more than youthful petty vandalism, but Welch's eye is anything but untrained. He knew all too well what the symbols meant and who had spray-painted them there.
“It was the Latin Kings, the Black Gangsters Disciples and the Bloods,” he said. “Three active gangs that had marked their territory in that one boy's bathroom.”
That one episode only confirmed what Welch already knew - has known for years - that gang activity has pervaded
literally every high school in Guilford County. More alarming, it has filtered down to the middle schools and has even made inroads into some of the elementary schools. Welch has been sounding the alarm for a full decade, and has been monitoring gang activity even longer, but only in the past year or so has he been able to cut through the wall of denial.
“I've been preaching to them and doing gang classes for teachers, administrators, neighborhood-watch groups and churches since 1997,” he said, “showing them the identifiers, what to look for in the schools and neighborhoods. I told them it's going to be a problem if we don't get a handle on it and I've been trying to get the schools to look at the issue. They were saying back then that we don't have gangs in our schools.”
But, with few exceptions, they're not saying it anymore.
Corp. Welch has been on the vanguard of the gang problem since 1994, shortly after the first evidence of gang activity revealed itself in Guilford County. He was one of five officers selected to start the school resource officers program in Guilford County. Currently he is the School Resource Officer at Southern Guilford High School and is a past president of the N.C. Association of School Resource Officers.
A subtext of Welch's message of convincing the local populace that it has a serious gang problem is dispelling myths associated with youth gangs; namely, that it is an inner-city problem, that it is predominantly disadvantaged minority kids, that it is exclusively males, and that only a handful of gangs have infiltrated the area. All those assumptions are false.
“People want to think that it's a big-city, strictly urban problem, and that's simply not the case,” said Welch. “It's going on at Southern Guilford, and we're the smallest school in the county. We see evidence of it all over.”
As for its being confined to the low end of the socio-economic scale, Welch countered with, “Don't think it's just your low-income black kids. It's whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, low to high income. There are no economic boundaries; we see it all the way up to kids of doctors and lawyers.”
Somewhat surprisingly, female gangs are a growing phenomenon. According to Corp. Welch, “We're seeing more and more all-girl gangs coming up. And sometimes they are more vicious than the male gangs. Whereas the guys will do a normal beat-down fighting and kicking, the girls will use razor blades and cut you on the face. They'll go for the cosmetic part; they want them to realize they messed with your gang.”
While Welch could not give a figure for individual gang members, he did offer a startling revelation: “We just started the county program, so there's no way to say exactly how many individuals are involved, but what I can say is at a recent Greensboro public forum, Ernest Cuthbertson (who is Welch's City of Greensboro counterpart) said he knew of at least 45 gangs in Greensboro. I took that to mean 45 individual, identified gangs, just in Greensboro.”
Part of the reason for the increase in numbers as well as the backgrounds of the various gang members is the emergence of “non-traditional” gangs.
“We're dealing with two types,” said the veteran SRO. “The traditional national gangs from Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, New York and Aurora, Colorado, have people moving here. They've brought the big gang knowledge and are leading it and forming gangs here. But the biggest rise has been these non-traditional gangs, groups of individuals, male and female, who go all the way up the economic ladder, who form these neighborhood clique gangs. They dress alike, communicate with non-verbal codes and hand signals, called ‘stacking,' and commit the same types of criminal acts, and that makes them a youth gang. They'll do the car break-ins, the house break-ins, the car larcenies, the drugs and some of the hardcore stuff too, like drive-by shootings and prostitution rings.”
One of the most unsettling aspects of the gang demographic profile offered by Welch is the young age at which potential members are recruited.
“Middle schools are definitely the big recruiting area,” he noted. “ The majority of the youngest hardcore gangbangers in Guilford County are between the ages of 13 and 15. By the time they get to the 9th grade they're full-fledged gang members. They might flirt with the idea in middle school, but there's no such thing as a wannabe. If you're hanging with them you're just as much as in. They're using you.
“And, yes, they're even targeting elementary school kids. They'll use them as lookouts or tell them to go in a store and steal a couple of steaks, to get them used to that gang lifestyle. Then they'll buy them ice cream and tennis shoes and new bikes.
“Unfortunately, the parents might be getting their drugs from this gang, and they're letting their kids be used by the gangs so they can support their drug habit.”
In that gang rivalries are essentially battles over turf, Welch fears that Jamestown's proximity to both High Point and Greensboro makes it a nexus of gang activity.
“The problem is that the Greensboro gangs and the High Point gangs are big rivals, anyway,” he said. “They're both fighting for territory and they both want to claim their school as their territory. I know Ragsdale has that problem and I suspect Southwest is the same.”
Next week: What neighborhoods, schools and communities can do to help curb gang activity.
Ogi Overman can be reached at (336) 841-4933 or firstname.lastname@example.org.