As youth gangs expand throughout the Washington region, many public schools are playing a more sinister role than teachers, counselors and parents realize: They have become recruiting grounds for gang members, school and law enforcement officials said yesterday.

"Gangs are smart. They are good recruiters," said Prince George's County schools chief Andre J. Hornsby. "They know how to infiltrate the school environment, and they know how to take control."

Nearly 400 teachers, counselors, security guards and other school personnel turned out for the first regional school safety and security conference at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt yesterday. They heard experts explain how to spot the graffiti, tattoos and hand signals that identify gangs. They learned about gang recruitment strategies -- one speaker said gang members even target children as they leave Sunday school classes -- and discussed ways to keep students busy after school through organized sports and other programs.

"When we were growing up, we had more activities," said Barbara DePauw, an Arlington County resident who has worked with at-risk students in Montgomery County public schools for 40 years. "Kids today don't, and Mom and Dad are working."

That's why Hornsby has decided to spend about $800,000 to start an athletic program in Prince George's middle schools this year, he said. Sports programs were an important part of middle schools until about a decade ago, when budget cuts forced them out, Hornsby said. Now middle school students in the county will have basketball, soccer, baseball and track to occupy them.

"We must involve our children in other activities to capture their imagination and give them a sense of hope and belonging, so that they understand that they have other options," Hornsby said. The school system also will provide more opportunities for academics after school and on weekends, he said.

Yesterday's conference was organized by the Montgomery and Prince George's school systems, the Prince George's state's attorney's office and community groups as part of a campaign to crack down on gangs, which police say are responsible for several shootings in recent months. Last week, for example, Jose Escobar, 22, of Manassas Park was fatally shot at a party, a slaying linked to one of the region's growing street gangs.

The issue has become so high-profile that earlier this year, Prince George's and Montgomery counties formed a task force of police officers and community leaders. Officials said yesterday that it is difficult to determine how many gang members operate in the region.

"We have gangs who organize themselves across county and jurisdictional lines, and it makes sense for us to do the same thing," said Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey.

Ivey said that Maryland's laws are not harsh enough toward gang members and that he plans to push for legislation that would make it illegal to recruit someone into a criminal gang, a law that exists in Virginia. Last month, a 22-year-old man was sentenced in Fairfax County Circuit Court to three years in jail for recruiting a minor, a 14-year-old girl he met outside Lake Braddock Secondary School in Fairfax County.

Yesterday, officials focused mostly on training those who interact with gang members on a daily basis: school counselors, teachers and security guards, for example.

"I'm not able to identify them, and I want to be able to identify them," said Deborah Sutton, a Montgomery school security officer.

That's why Rob Musser, a Montgomery police officer, was on hand to talk about what gang members wear, how they talk and what they write.

"It's a training ground," Musser said of the region's schools. "It's a sort of militia."

Look out for students who flash signs to each other, he said. The way a students wears a cap or rolls up a pant leg can give his or her affiliation away. Try to find out all the nicknames of the gang members in your school. And once you find out who they are, interview them, but never do it alone, he said.

And, he said, "you have to show them respect. . . . They don't want to be put down."

That's a bit of advice that Joe Jimenez, a security officer at Central High School in Prince George's, said he has tried to apply as he interacts with students. Whenever he encounters a suspected gang member, he said, he researches the student's background. Then he tries to get to know the student.

"They're not born angry," he said.

Although he tries to reason with students to get them out of the gang life, Jimenez said, he also gets tough with them when they break rules. "I try to instill in them that there are consequences," he said.

Hector Aguiniga, a counselor who focuses on immigrant students in Prince George's, said he has visited some schools to talk to students and teachers about the gang problem. But he believes it should be discussed more frequently at all of the county's schools, he said.

"I'm glad we're seeing something like this," he said of the conference. "I hope there's going to be follow-through."

Montgomery County police officer Rob Musser, displaying a plastic gun that looks real, says schools are "a training ground" for gang members. Nearly 400 teachers, counselors, security guards and other school personnel attended the first regional school safety and security conference in Greenbelt.Deborah Sutton, who works as a school security officer in Montgomery, said she wants to be able to identify gang members.