Fairfax County kicked off its first gang summit yesterday with an announcement that cable giant Cox Communications will donate $1 million in cash to start after-school clubs for children and an additional $2 million worth of anti-gang public service announcements.
The importance of after-school programs was a major theme at the conference, which drew more than 300 participants, including the county's top officials, police officers, school teachers, pastors and social workers.
County Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said that some youths, especially young teens, end up in gangs because they have nothing to do after school and their parents work late into the night.
"These youths need to know that there are positive opportunities for them," said Connolly, a principal organizer of the summit. "Our job is to make sure the blight of gangs does not gain any foothold."
No public safety issue has attracted as much attention in recent years as gang violence. From traditional motorcycle groups to machete-wielding Latino packs, gangs are on the rise in Northern Virginia, actively recruiting impressionable youngsters, authorities say.
In the past, most gang activity was an urban problem, but gangs today prefer the suburbs or even rural locations, where there is less competition for territory and where authorities might appear less prepared.
Fairfax police say there is a gang presence in practically every county high school. Prevention efforts have to start earlier, said School Superintendent Jack D. Dale. Even sixth-grade teachers are observing gang activity among their students, he said.
For that reason, Dale said in an interview, the school budget includes $950,000 to create after-school sports and academic programs for middle-school students. He said he also would open schools anytime to public, private and faith-based gang prevention initiatives as long as the children are supervised properly.
"Gangs are a problem for almost every one of our communities," Dale said. "The leading risk factor for joining gangs is unsupervised time with friends."
After presenting his company's gift, Gary T. McCollum, Cox's vice president and general manager, spoke of his experience with gangs when he was growing up in a poor area of Richmond. Without a father living at home and having lost his mother to breast cancer when he was 10, he grew close to his friends, some of whom belonged to violent gangs.
Without the positive influence of a neighborhood Boys and Girls Club, McCollum said he might have ended up a gang member, too.
"The first people I met who had gone to college were at this club," said McCollum, who graduated from James Madison University. "Nobody grows up dreaming of going into a gang. They do it because they have no choice. . . . I had friends who are dead or in jail. Why didn't I take that step? Because I knew I had another choice."
McCollum said the $1 million donation could help start two new Boys and Girls Club branches in Fairfax. The county has one, which meets in a church basement in Culmore, a neighborhood claimed by Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, one of Northern Virginia's largest and most violent gangs.
The public service announcements, to air on cable television channels, will target corporations and encourage them to donate money to the cause, he said.
County officials also announced the appointment of Robert Bermingham as Fairfax's new gang prevention coordinator. Bermingham, a probation supervisor in the county's Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, said he will report directly to County Executive Anthony H. Griffin beginning March 7 and make about $80,000 a year.
Police Chief David M. Rohrer said the position is needed because coordination can be difficult among the various groups fighting gang problems -- from police departments to schools to faith-based ministries and social programs. Confidentiality rules between, for instance, teachers and students often complicate information sharing, he said.
Rohrer said his main concern is that gangs will become more organized and start distributing weapons or drugs in Fairfax.