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Perceptions vary on local gang activity

A survey by the Jackson County Gang Task Force shows adults believe there is a gang problem locally, but most students couldn't point to even one suspected gang member who attended their school.

"It's not really surprising," said Joe Ferguson, deputy director for the Jackson County Community Justice's Juvenile Department. "I think kids have a different perception than adults."

Beginning in April 2012, the task force surveyed 4,500 people about gang problems, and, with the help of Southern Oregon University criminology students, created a report, "Assessing Our Community's Youth Gang Problem," which was released Tuesday.

A majority of the surveys — 4,100 — were filled out by students in seventh through 10th grades in Medford, Central Point, Eagle Point, Rogue River and Phoenix-Talent districts. The remainder were filled out by business owners, parents and community leaders.

"The assessment concludes that there is a genuine concern about gang activity in Jackson County," the report reads, adding adults surveyed expressed alarm about gangs and the influx of "illicit drugs, drug-dealing and violence associated with those activities impacting the community."

However, a majority of surveyed students held the opposite view, saying they didn't know of gang members who attended their school. Most students said they had not witnessed gang activity on campus or in their neighborhoods, but that they could identify gang members by tattoos, clothing and gang signs.

Task force members will present the data and answer questions during a forum from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 24, at White City Elementary School, 2830 Maple Court, White City. A similar forum was held Tuesday at Central Medford High School's auditorium.

Of the 112 business owners and community leaders surveyed, 68 percent said gangs were a problem in their communities. About 10 percent answered no, with 22 percent saying they didn't know.

Nearly 70 percent of respondents attributed gang activity in their communities to gang members moving to the Rogue Valley from out of the area. About 53 percent of respondents said they believed the activity was caused by family members or friends coercing youth to join gangs. About 45 percent of respondents felt youth joined gangs to attain a sense of belonging. About 37 percent of participants said they thought poverty contributed to gang activity.

A majority of business owner respondents said they had seen an uptick in vandalism- and drug-related crimes. When asked how satisfied they were with the current response to gang activity by law enforcement, social service agencies and schools, 18 percent of respondents said they were satisfied, 38 percent were not satisfied and 44 percent did not know.

How to solve the gang problem varied. Answers included offering more after-school activities, putting pressure on government agencies for additional funding to combat the problem, and providing more mentoring opportunities.

"The community leaders need to find a way to reprioritize the issues regarding our community to deal with this problem in a comprehensive way," one respondent wrote. "If we don't, there will just be more tragic deaths and we will have to keep building more jails and prison cells."

A resident survey also asked 50 community members about their perceptions of gang activity. Of that number, 75 percent reported feeling less safe in their community than they did two years ago. Reasons why varied, but included such examples as the Ashland bike path murder of David Grubbs and an increase in the transient population.

When asked what they would be willing to do to help drive down gang-related crime, 31 percent of community member respondents said they would engage in neighborhood outreach, while 17 percent they would be willing to mentor. One percent of respondents said "nothing."

Most of the 4,100 students surveyed said they had not witnessed gang activity on campus or in their neighborhoods, but that they could identify gang members by tattoos, clothing and gang signs. Ashland, Prospect and Butte Falls school districts elected not to participate in the survey.

Close to 70 percent of student respondents said they did not know whether anyone at their school was in a gang. About 25 percent of respondents said there were no students in gangs at their school, and a slim 5 percent said they knew students who were in gangs.

The perception didn't change when it came to students' neighborhoods, with 60 percent of respondents saying they didn't know whether gangs from other neighborhoods came to their neighborhood.

When asked how they identified gang members, a majority of respondents — 60 percent — said through their clothing. About 6 percent of respondents — 248 students — said they were involved in gang activity, with close to half of that number saying they were still involved at some capacity.

About 54 percent of the 229 public school employees surveyed said they did not think gangs were a problem at their school, 21 percent said they were and 23 percent said they didn't know. The remaining 2 percent did not answer. About 35 percent of school employee respondents thought gang activity was decreasing in the school, 19 percent said they were seeing an uptick and 46 percent said it was staying the same.

When asked what they thought drove students to join gangs, answers included lack of positive role models, poverty, bleak future and a lack of self-worth.

Of the 36 parents to take the survey, 85 percent said gangs had created an increase in graffiti and vandalism in the community. They also felt gangs created increases in violent crime, community fear, property crime and drug crimes. Close to 81 percent said more parental involvement would curb the gang problem. Jobs and job training, after-school and recreation programs and a greater police presence were also picked.

The study also catalogued known membership of area gangs. There are 16 gangs with 346 total members, 80 percent of whom belong to the Surenos or Nortenos gangs, the report says.

There is an overriding opinion from adult respondents that more must be done to curb gang activity and behavior, including an increase in the number of after-school and mentoring programs available for students, the report concludes.

"A recurrent theme in data is providing more youth mentorship and school programs as a means to keep kids out of gangs," the report reads. "A concern for the economy and bleak job prospects also brought forth talk about providing more jobs, job skill and job training to help reverse the 'culture of poverty' which also seems to surround gang membership."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

Juveniles remove graffiti in this photo provided by the Medford Police Department.