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In a Gangster's Paradise

How they're banging in the 'burbs

By Mary Ellen Flannery

You may not think you have gang members in your school. You may think that your students aren't those kinds of kids. Maybe you think they're too rich, too suburban, too smart, or too White.

Think again.

"If you don't think you have a gang problem, you're in the wrong business," says Detective Javier Castellanos, a New Jersey gang specialist, in a recent training for school staff in northern New Jersey.

"You do," he adds firmly.

"We know it!" says a voice from the back.

For decades, gang membership in America has been stretching out from the inner cities of Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, into such places as small town Wisconsin. Past the gates in South Florida's cul-de-sac communities, into the big houses of Washington, D.C.'s, suburbs, even down the street from the Billy Graham Center in the most churched-up town in this country, you will find boys and girls in gangs. And that means you'll find them in your schools, too.

According to the most recent U.S. Justice Department surveys, somewhere around 760,000 kids are hanging, fighting, and pushing drugs in 24,000 different gangs. In 2000, 95 percent of law enforcement respondents "identified [gang] activity within one or more of the high schools in their jurisdictions. Ninety-one percent reported gang activity within one or more intermediate schools."

Since then, according to the 2004 National Youth Gang Survey, about half of the surveyed agencies say things have gotten better or stayed the same, but the other half say it's even bloodier than before. At the same time, the federal data collectors say their numbers, which rely on reports from local police, may not provide an accurate accounting. Not surprisingly, not all want to admit they have a gang problem. It's not such a great thing for property values, notes Castellanos dryly.

And not all school districts want to admit it either.

"What constitutes a problem?" asks a suburban Connecticut high school teacher. "Our district has gangs—but we're in denial."


Castellanos and his partners in the Passaic County Sheriff's Department have perfected a Rambo-style, take-no-prisoners presentation on youth gangs that leaves at least one school nurse wiping tears off her cheek and a few veteran truant officers shaking their heads. "I've been in that kid's house," whispers one, as the detective clicks past a PowerPoint slide of a bullet-scarred teenager.

"You ever hear a kid go 'Bla-a-a-a-att!' like simulated gunfire, when he's walking into your classroom?" Castellanos asks.

"Oh my God. I hear that!"

"And then, if you get another one answering 'Suuu-wooo!' you'd better duck!" Castellanos says. The first is a popular East Coast Bloods greeting, while the latter is pure West Coast.

Ready for a history lesson?

Basically, there are two major gang alliances in the United States: Folk Nation and People Nation. Within those alliances are the actual gangs (in the same way that the American League includes the Yankees and Red Sox). The Folk Nation, for example, boasts of big names like the Los Angeles-based Crips and Chicago-based Gangster Disciples. Within the People Nation are the Bloods and Latin Kings.

Each gang has its own set of identifiers. Remember the big deal about bandannas in schools? You'd see a kid draped in red scarves, tied around their heads and legs, and know they belonged—or wanted to look like they belonged—to a chapter of Bloods. In response, many schools have banned them. But the kids have moved on. There are new ways to signal affiliation.

"You see a kid with a jacket hanging on their left shoulder— they're telling you they're Folk Nation, could be Crip," Castellanos warns. They might pull their left pocket out, roll up their left pant leg, or wear their belt buckle to the left. Regular baseball caps are very big. Why are all the kids in one New Jersey project wearing Pittsburgh Steelers caps? Because the team's colors also are Latin Kings colors. Why are other East Coast kids wearing Kansas City Chiefs caps?

Because "KC" means "Kill Crips."

Tattoos are telling, too. Don't believe the kid who tells you that his "MOB" tattoo means "man of business," or "money over bitches," Castellanos says. It means "member of Bloods." Or look for strands of colored beads, sometimes modified rosaries, which are popular among the most faithful gang members.

The other day, Castellanos, who has moved from New Jersey to a wooded suburb of Pennsylvania, ran into an obvious Bloods member in his local grocery store. "The salad dressing aisle!" he recalls with amazement. The street-wise officer flashed a few elaborate hand signals, shouted, "What's poppin', dawg?" and the gang member greeted him with delight: "You Blood?"

"Nah, man. I'm a cop."


How far does the detective have to move his two daughters? Is there a nice little town where boys don't get "beat in" and girls don't get "sexed in"?

He doesn't think so. "Gangs go everywhere," he says. (He just got a photo of gang-related graffiti in Afghanistan.) His colleagues in law enforcement, all over the United States, see the same problems. "We've had gangs in Northern Virginia for some years, for the most part in the inner suburbs," says Leesburg, Virginia, Chief of Police Joe Price. "In the early parts of this decade, we saw it moving to the outer suburbs, which is happening all over the country."

Price is co-chair of a regional taskforce that involves everybody from the Secret Service to the local school board—and it shares credit for reining in the rapid expansion of MS-13, a fast-growing, machete-wielding Central American gang. The task force also has trained every teacher in its region, much like the New Jersey team. (In New Jersey, teacher training in gang awareness is required by state law, and Castellanos is a regular guest at New Jersey Education Association-sponsored conferences.)

"One of the worst things that a community can do is put its head in the sand and say it doesn't have a problem," Price says. "Gangs will develop so rapidly that by the time they're forced to realize it, it's too late."

But all this red-button talk about gang-bangers in the suburbs—doesn't it all seem a little over the top? Just because a kid starts flashing shadow puppets with his hands, does it mean he's dealing dope? If he talks like Tupac, does it mean he's smacking his classmates after school? "Kids pose. They want to pretend to be part of something," says Josh Ajima, a teacher at Dominion High School in Northern Virginia.

Many classroom teachers say that they're overwhelmed with "wannabes," who are definitely annoying, but not necessarily illegal. By definition, a gang member must be engaged in criminal activity.

"I can't stand people who tap-dance around problems and say there is no problem. But I think this is such an over-dramatized issue," says Pam Smith, a Northern Virginia teacher with 20-plus years of experience. Smith had a student recently suspended for two weeks for spraying "gang-related" graffiti in school. "He's a great kid, so naïve. He's as much a gang member as my 80-year-old mother!"

But Emily Tusin tells a different story. Tusin, a second-year elementary teacher in suburban Wheaton, Illinois, home to the Billy Graham Center and the most churches per capita in America, knows she had a gang member in her classroom last year. "He was a new kid and he came in with notches in his eyebrow to show he was a member of a gang. He came right in, saw another kid—who he didn't know—and he actually punched that kid in the face because he was wearing the wrong color."

Both Smith and Tusin are likely right. Would-be gangsters are walking around on campuses, as are the real deal. What's important is to learn the difference. "Keep your eyes and ears open. If you get any kind of inkling that a young person is involved in gang activity—gang graffiti on their notebook, they're wearing colors, hats—talk to your local police," advises Wheaton Deputy Chief Tom Meloni.

"It might be nothing more than a comic book club, but the best course of action is to be vigilant," he says. "The more you tolerate, the worse it gets. And once they get entrenched, they're very difficult to eradicate. I worked in South Central L.A.—I know!"


 Once a kid gets into a gang, there are basically two ways out: the back of a police car or a hearse, Castellanos says. "Unless a parent has the resources to pack up and move, there really aren't any options," he adds.

Prevention is the key. If you're a parent, get your child's MySpace password, he urges. Gangs do recruitment and organization on social networking sites. He's not a big fan of gangster rap. Nor does he care much for gang-related video games, like the Grand Theft Auto series. "Would you let a sex offender in your house? Would you invite a gang member into your house? That's what you're doing when you buy these games for your kids."

Ask your kids where they're going, who they're going with, and what time they'll be home. Most of all, as parents and educators, seek out ways to spend time with kids and involve them in after-school activities, he says.

Dan Korem, the Dallas-based author of Suburban Gangs: The Affluent Rebels, has found success with a prevention program that partners at-risk kids with "protectors," usually teachers. That person promises to call the student every week and stop by twice a month. "How could an hour have so much impact?" Korem asks. "Because so many kids don't have anybody in their corner. That small amount of time has an out-of-proportion impact."

Kids join gangs for a variety of reasons—including money and access to drugs—but the primary one shared by members in inner-cities, suburbs, and country towns is this: A sense of belonging.

"When you go into some of these homes and see the way these kids live—they have everything they want!" Castellanos says. "But they don't have everything they need, which is love."

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What’s Your Gang IQ?

Gang Glossary

“Yo, my man is food.” – Food is a code word for assault.

“Dawg” – A member of the Bloods

“Blood drop” – A child of the Bloods

“Crakalak!” – A Crips shout.

“I’m going to pop his top and drink his milk.” – Somebody’s going to get hurt.

“Tomatoes” – What a Latin King might call a Blood.

“T.O.S.” – A Latin King order to Terminate On Sight.2