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1997: Vigilance has kept gang problems light

In 1997, Our Valley worried about how, even though many people moved here because it’s an idyllic place to live and raise families, some of the problems they were running away from were finding their way here.

So, staring the millennium in the face, Our Valley published “a tribute to the wonder and innocence of childhood,” along with an honest look at problems that loomed. It studied how life was for children in simpler times when there were no cars and virtually no mention of sex in polite society — only marriage in a distant adulthood.

It quoted many children in hopes they “will recognize themselves, rediscovering their vitality and joy,” while for their parents “the effect may be more sobering.”

For this year’s issue, we decided to highlight one 22-year-old story that was headlined “Rogue Valley teens see little evidence of gangs.”

It noted some graffiti and some teens “wearing baggy pants and talking tough,” but high school students felt safe from “gang pressures.” Maybe a dozen kids in high school admitted to being in gangs. One student called them “posers.”

Today, police and schools feel they’ve come a long way and, with student resource officers on the job since that time, says Kevin Campbell, Medford School District director of secondary student achievement, “we don’t see a lot of evidence of gang activity.”

Campbell says that, a couple decades ago, he was “taking care of tagging, displays of gang sects on book covers, and we would be pretty vigilant on dress codes, not allowing any such attire or messages in school. That was the time of sagging pants, and we had them hold pants around the waist. Right now, I wouldn’t even call it minor.”

SRO Arturo Vega of McLoughlin Middle School says there is “some gang activity, but it’s very, very low. It would be foolish to do it. We see some graffiti in the alleys, but we have a good idea who is doing it. I wouldn’t call them organized gangs. They don’t know what they’re doing. They’ve been looking at too much rap music and gang movies on TV.”

Medford police have five SROs in schools now and, says Vega, “If we nip it in the bud in middle school, we can keep them on track.”

Vega recently arrested a boy on a parole violation for wearing gang colors and had “a chat” with his mother, establishing the fact that “we’re not going to tolerate this silliness I’m basically a babysitter.”

Signs of gang activities go in cycles, and five to eight years ago, notes Vega, “it was pretty active, with some drive-bys, but those were mostly adults.”

Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau says gang activity was up on the west side a few years ago, and much of it was mitigated by rapid graffiti removal and beautification organized by neighbors.

“Graffiti incites gang behavior and the cycle of retaliation. Tagging is a big thing of gangs, and it was really organized three or four years ago,” says Budreau, “but immediately removing tagging significantly reduces the cycle.”

He credits the decline of gang activity to the SRO program, and such community efforts as LifeArt, Kids Unlimited and the LAB (Life and Basketball) program.

“Our SROs play a big part in identifying trends. If they see a kid displaying gang behavior and going down the wrong path, they intervene and get parents involved. They have enough of a positive relationship with students that someone will tip off the SRO if there’s going to be a gang-related fight. News travels fast with all the texting, and we often intervene.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Apparent gang graffiti lines the Fern Valley Road underpass along the Bear Creek Greenway in Phoenix in 2014.