As educators, police and parents train their attention toward quelling gang violence, the leader of the Prince George's County schools is seeking to allay fears.
"Schools are still the safest place in the world for students," interim chief Howard A. Burnett said. "Research says that. It's true."
Still, it remains somewhat difficult to grasp the scope of the gang problem in Prince George's, Montgomery County, the District and other areas for a basic reason: a lack of data, or, perhaps, a lack of public data.
One message from gang experts at a regional school security conference held recently at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt was that law enforcement and other officials should keep detailed tabs on gang-related incidents to ensure that money and attention flow to the most urgent areas of need.
In schools, that could mean keeping track of the number of gang-related fights reported to principals or public safety officers in the county and the region. Or it could mean counting the number of gang graffiti tags seen on walls and scrubbed off. Or the number of gang-related suspensions and expulsions. Or the number of gang-related weapons possession violations. Or even the number of gang-related dress-code violations.
Naturally, deciding what is gang-related and what is not is a judgment call. But a Justice Department gang expert at the conference, Phelan Wyrick, said such judgments, coupled with the collection, synthesis and dissemination of data, are indispensable for forming sound public policy to respond to the gang threat.
In the absence of data, what drives public attention and official policies are anecdotes. There are, apparently, plenty of those. It's not just reports of gang-related stabbings in Montgomery this month. Nor is it just suspicions, which may or may not be based in fact, about gang activity in connection with recent stabbings and killings in Langley Park.
Consider this report from Principal Sandi Jimenez of Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School. She said the outer brick walls of her school were defaced with gang symbols, including the insignias of Mara Salvatrucha, before the end of last school year. Some of the graffiti, she said, depicted demons.
"The things they drew were ominous-looking," Jimenez said. "And the little kids got scared."
The graffiti were scoured quickly from the walls. Jimenez searched out MS-13-affiliated youths and spoke with them for an hour. They agreed, she said, to try to keep the school a safe (and graffiti-free) zone. But Jimenez cautioned, in an interview in her office, that the gang influence in Langley Park and several surrounding communities is strong. She estimated that at least half of her sixth-graders knew someone involved in a gang.
Camp Transforms School
Some activists are jumping into schools with programs that are likely to pay dividends whether gangs are active or not. One of them is a summer school program at Nicholas Orem Middle School in Hyattsville.
The University of Maryland's Democracy Collaborative, a community initiative to seed good works and build bridges between the public and private sectors, teamed up with the school to provide a tuition-free afternoon camp for summer school students after they finished with morning reading and mathematics classes.
The project, which tapped artistic impulses of 125 kids, remade the appearance of a 44-year-old school that had been showing its age. Now abstract murals and stenciled designs adorn the walls. A courtyard garden is growing peppers, crepe myrtle, basil, sunflowers and other herbs, vegetables and flowers.
The Latin American Youth Center funded the project with a $65,000 grant, a major step into Maryland for a nonprofit group based in the District. The university group pitched in about $35,000 worth of in-kind services. The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington helped with transportation for field trips. The project helped rejuvenate a school that serves a low-income area and is seeking to boost academic performance.
Orem Principal Kenneth Calvin, as he showed off the makeover just before school opened this week, said: "I tell my children we are the shining light in the middle of the abyss."