'We know we are losing kids'
Whether walking across the North Medford High School campus or scanning teens' MySpace pages, school resource officer Ernie Whiteman is constantly on the lookout for signs of gang affiliation — a low-slung red belt, a blue bandana draped over a shoulder or hanging from a back pocket.
And he and other officials working to stop gangs from growing deep roots in the Rogue Valley want to make sure that parents and other community members know what to watch out for, too.
"Knowledge can be powerful," Medford police Lt. Tim Doney said. "Parents and the community should be informed and take a stand."
Police, schools and nonprofit groups that work with children all say that close, cooperative sharing of information and resources could be the best tool for preventing gang activity here.
"We have real significant issues with kids and this pattern of behavior," said Tom Cole, Kids Unlimited executive director. "But we also have the resources and relationships to stop it before it gets worse."
Since late last year, police have noted an increase in gang-related graffiti and fights between Sureños and Norteños, two Hispanic gangs with roots in the California prison system. A clash at a New Year's party in White City, a street fight in Medford on New Year's Day and three stabbings reported over three weeks in December and early January raised police concerns about escalating gang violence.
Three young men — Gerardo Reyes, 20, German Reyes Real, 18, and Jose Javier Laris, 18 — were indicted on six attempted aggravated murder charges Thursday for their roles in a late-night, drive-by shooting Feb. 18 near South Medford High School after a gang disagreement. No one was injured.
The Jackson County Community Justice juvenile division reports an increase is disorderly conduct, harassment and assault charges stemming from altercations based on gang affiliations, not on personal relationships, said program manager Dan Converse.
"When we see gang numbers increasing, we know we are losing kids," Cole said.
Cole said research has shown that the kids who get involved with gangs are those who don't do well in school, don't get involved in extracurricular activities and are alienated from healthy adolescent activity. Some of them come from families that struggle because of limited education, addiction, poverty and criminal backgrounds.
Kids Unlimited offers enrichment programs ranging from homework help and peer counseling to sports, theater, art and dance classes at five elementary schools and a youth center near downtown.
"Our organization gives them hope," he said.
Rogue Valley Youth for Christ offers Christian mentoring of kids in after-school and weekend programs, said Matt Sweeney, director of juvenile justice ministries with the organization.
He notes that problems that push kids toward gangs are the same everywhere — absentee parents, crime, addiction, failure at school, anything that leaves a gap in a child's life.
"The reality across the U.S. is kids are suffering abandonment," he said. "They have a deep emptiness. It makes it easy for them to drift, to be drawn into gangs."
Kids Unlimited works closely with schools to identify youngsters who could be headed for problems and reach out to them. Otherwise, poor students prone to getting in trouble tend to flock together and find bigger trouble, Cole said.
Whiteman said most serious gang members in Jackson County came here when their families moved to escape gang violence. Even those who were minor players in gangs in larger cities take on a kind of small-town celebrity here and attract the admiration of local youngsters, enabling them to create their own gang, he said.
"It may seem kind of fun for a while," Whiteman said.
Authorities estimate the number of people with active gang ties in Jackson County at about three dozen. However, they report recruiting activity among kids as young as sixth grade.
Although the gangs are largely Hispanic, they have a few white members here. Most local associates of the gangs don't know the groups' violent history or roots of their rivalry, and some even maintain friendships across both gangs, police said.
Whiteman said many of the gang-affiliated teens here typically fall away from the gang lifestyle after high school. There are very few families here with multigenerational gang ties, unlike in cities with long gang histories such as Salem or Redding, Calif.
Cole said the community must surround vulnerable youth with support, so they don't turn to gangs.
"We can show them gangs are a negative option and show them positive options are there," he said.
Medford schools collaborate closely with Medford police, with three school resource officers assigned to campuses and two community resource officers who work with schools, Whiteman said.
District officials and police officers meet monthly to discuss school safety. They plan to attend a safe schools conference together in Salem this week, said Doug Jantzi, the Medford School District's director of secondary education.
"We are constantly training and researching ways to make schools safer," Doney said.
Whiteman said regular meetings between school and police officials started in 1998 after Kip Kinkel's shooting spree at Thurston High School, and Medford's ongoing cooperation has garnered positive attention at conferences across the country.
School resource officers from across Jackson County also meet regularly, along with juvenile justice officials, to share information about kids in trouble and prevent bigger problems, he said. Eagle Point, Phoenix and Crater high schools all have school resource officers.
"We get involved in small things before they become legal issues," Whiteman said, of the on-campus cops. "We have time to do prevention work."
He said school resource officers are available to advise parents on gang concerns. Anyone can call the schools, he said. He plans a series of community and parent meetings, although times and places haven't been set yet, to discuss gang activity and how to recognize gang symbols, clothing and other signs, which are often apparent on MySpace and other social networking sites kids frequent.
"Watch your kid's MySpace pages because we are seeing lots of posing and gang colors and terminology," he said.
Parents and other community members can help stop gangs by being involved in children's lives, Doney said.
"Law enforcement is just one component," he said.
All police agencies in Jackson County have adopted a "zero-tolerance policy" for criminal gang activity. Sheriff Mike Winters has promised that those jailed on gang-related charges won't be released because of overcrowding at the Jackson County Jail.
"We always have time to make life difficult for gang members," Whiteman said. "They are finding they can't go anywhere in this county and not get police attention."
Police hope the public's attention will be focused on the problem, too, and people will be willing to report graffiti and fights they witness.
"Other cities didn't get attention on it and it got out of control," Whiteman said. "Then they couldn't get caught up. We don't want to do that.
"We don't want to ever accept this as part of the growth of the city."
Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.