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An Antidote to the Lure of Gang Life

Week-Long Fairfax County Camp Aims to Counter Recruitment at Schools

By Sarah Park
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2004; Page B03

At 14, Jose was an aspiring gang member who scrawled pitchforks and six-pointed stars -- known gang signs, police say -- on a white T-shirt that he liked to wear away from his Springfield home. It wasn't so much the shirt or Jose's elaborately folded bandannas that alarmed his mother enough to call police more than a year ago. It was the machete in his bedroom.

At the West Springfield Police Station this month, "Officer" Francisco Cornejo, 12, of Alexandria tried to console a sobbing actress who clutched Jose's decorated shirt and asked for help with her "son." The garment, which police had confiscated, was a prop for role-playing scenarios to teach 35 Annandale area youths ages 12 to 16 about gangs.

Pfc. Chris Edmunds instructs students Robert Thomas, left, and Andy Gomez, both 12, on what to do and how to act during a mock police stop of their car. The role-playing is part of the Road Dawgs summer camp in Fairfax County. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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On the last day of the week-long program, middle and high school students were asked to think like law enforcement officers and make quick decisions as they responded to "parents" and "neighbors" concerned about gangs, noise and graffiti. The training was part of a new summer camp, Road Dawgs, run by the Fairfax County Police Department and other county agencies.

The program is one of many responses that have emerged from the region's recent scramble -- characterized by the formation of multiple, overlapping, anti-gang task forces -- to find ways to control violent street gangs and their recruiting efforts in schools. The camp, held as the new school year approached, was aimed at persuading kids to be part of the solution rather than part of a gang.

"For years and years and years, gangs have focused recruiting on the area. We want to match it," said Officer Cory Hoggatt, a camp coordinator and school resource officer at James W. Robinson Jr. Secondary School near Fairfax City. During field trips to juvenile court and a detention center, the students discussed with police officers and other authorities what it's like to be in a gang and the consequences of membership.

Camp participants were not selected for suspected ties or heightened vulnerability to gangs, coordinators said. Rather, school officials encouraged students to sign up because their grades were falling or they were having trouble at home. Others heard about the program through friends or wanted to attend because they were bored.

At the police station, Jose's "mother" asked Francisco, a student at Edgar Allan Poe Middle School in the Alexandria section of Fairfax, for advice on how to tell whether her child was in a gang and what to do about it.

"When he comes back [home], make sure you use your five senses," Francisco said. "Smell him to see if he's been drinking."

He also recommended that the mother, played by a Community and Recreation Services Department employee, be more vigilant without being overbearing. Figure out who Jose hangs out with, talk to his friends' parents and pick him up after school, Francisco said. Oh, and don't forget to take away the gang paraphernalia, he said.

"Burn it," Francisco advised, so that Jose would not be mistaken for a gang member. One camper said his brother was stabbed in the neck near Annandale High School on Dec. 11, in part because of identity confusion.

Members of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, the largest violent street gang in Northern Virginia, mistook the 15-year-old Annandale resident for a member of a rival gang, the South Side Locos, after he aimed a rude gesture at them. The bleeding youth managed to find a police officer at the high school and later was treated for injuries that were not life-threatening at Inova Fairfax Hospital, authorities said.

One afternoon during the camp, in a cool, basement room at Northern Virginia Community College's Annandale campus, former Washington Redskin Ricky Harris, 60, talked frankly for an hour about his experiences with illicit drugs and violent gangs. Many of the campers wanted to know specifically what happens if you try to get out of a gang.

"If you tell the police that you quit, they won't do anything to you?" asked Joao Baluarte, 12, of North Springfield, who also worried that his mother would yell at him if he were in a gang.

Harris explained the usual scenario: die, move to another city or state or "join an even bigger gang" -- a football team, in his case. A football scholarship to the University of Arizona was Harris's ticket out of Los Angeles and away from the violent street gang he had run with since he was 10.

"Parents and celebrities and government officials won't ever tell them how they know because they would have to tell them what they've done," Harris said, applauding the camp for giving the youths a chance to discuss taboo topics that parents could find uncomfortable to broach.

Many of the campers say it's getting harder to distinguish gang-related jokes and boasts from real threats students make at bus stops and playgrounds. Francisco and other campers said the proximity of gang violence is troubling but, ultimately, just part of life.

"It worries me a little bit because this kid who got his hand cut off was near my neighborhood," he said, referring to a 16-year-old Alexandria youth whose hands were mutilated in May by machete-wielding MS-13 members. Although some accept the presence of gangs around their homes and schools as "normal," campers say, joining gangs is still a decision to make, not a mandate.

For camp coordinators, getting students to recognize that they have choices when it comes to joining gangs, taking drugs and engaging in other risky behaviors is the point of the program.

Edwin Sanchez, 14, of Alexandria said he knows 30 gang members, 20 of whom are his age: "It's normal. It's no big deal," he said, adding, "I know that I'm not going to join, and I'm not going to do the stuff they do."

Jose's parents, hoping to keep him from following his older brother into a gang, asked the police to intervene about 14 months ago. So far, they say, he's doing okay.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company