Many gang members lead a double life.
By night, they may be spray-painting graffiti, but by day they are like any other students, running down the hall to make it to class before the bell rings.
Many gang members attend local schools, though they often keep their gang affiliations hidden.
Damon Gibbs, principal of Johnson High School, said in the three years he’s been at Johnson High School, there haven’t been any gang problems at the school.
“Out of 1,130 kids we may have five or six that claim some sort of affiliation with our local gangs,” said Gibbs. “What we do is we deal with it individually and respectfully ask them to leave that sort of thing at home.”
But in some cases, gang rivalries flare up at school.
Two 16-year-old students were arrested for disorderly conduct Aug. 11 at Gainesville High School after flashing their rival gang signs at one another.
One claimed membership with the Mexican Vatos Society, or MVS, and the other said he was a member of BOE-23, also known as Busting on Everybody, according to Gainesville Police.
Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said the school system tries to help students before they cause trouble on campus.
“We have the supports in place for prevention, we have the supports in place for intervention, with counseling, with referrals to other agencies, with steering them to extracurricular sports,” Dyer said. “When all of those things have been exhausted and that child is out of control and chooses that path, and chooses to be representative of a gang and be openly doing so in a way that disturbs others, distresses others or even hints at posing a danger, then there’s just no tolerance for them being there. And that’s what you saw last week.”
Dyer said the school system places a great deal of emphasis on preventing children from joining gangs.
Teachers and school officials aim to get students interested in other activities where they can be productive and feel they belong.
“The biggest preventer is to get the children involved in other activities,” Dyer said. “Divert the child into something positive with peers and supervision.”
Dyer said when she was the principal of Fair Street Elementary, she recommended many of her students she felt to be at risk to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County.
Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said the school system has a no-tolerance policy for gang activity on campus.
“We’ve taken a very hard line over the last three years,” Schofield said. “Similar to our position to drugs, gangs just will not be tolerated in Hall County.”
Schofield said they’ve held tribunals and suspended and expelled students from the system for gang activity.
“I continue to believe that there are 26,000 children, the vast majority of whom come to school everyday wanting nothing more than to learn, and they have rights too,” Schofield said.
Schofield said the partnership with law enforcement and the no-tolerance approach to gangs has led to a decrease in arrests on school campuses.
Hall County’s school resource officers teach programs known as GREAT and ADVANCE to elementary and middle school students.
The two programs not only aim to show students that there are alternatives to gangs, but also the consequences of breaking the law.
“We really start very early in the fifth grade,” said Hall County Sheriff’s Col. Jeff Strickland.
Lt. Gene Joy, the Hall County Sheriff Office’s director of school-based programs, said the ADVANCE program is a 10-week curriculum for fifth-grade students.
“One of the things we talk about is thinking about the consequences, making good decisions,” Joy said.
The ADVANCE program, which stands for Avoiding Drugs Violence and Negative Choices Early, starts by showing kids that gangs are not the way to happiness.
“All research points to young people getting involved in negative activities because they want to increase their self-worth or self-esteem,” Joy said. “Through our ADVANCE program we show them you can have a wonderful time, you can be successful in your life and you can achieve goals you set for yourself without drugs, gangs and violence.”
ADVANCE also teaches resistance strategies to kids if they are confronted with drugs or gangs.
Bobby Jones, a school resource officer at C.W. Davis Middle School, teaches the GREAT program to sixth-graders.
He said GREAT, which stands for Gang Resistance Education and Training, takes a more serious approach to gang resistance for middle schoolers.
“The difference between ADVANCE in the fifth grade and GREAT in the sixth grade is that the ADVANCE officer is almost like ‘Officer Friendly,’” Jones said. “We got ‘Officer Friendly’ teaching you how to do the things that you should do and have a good time doing. By the time they get to the GREAT program it’s a little bit tougher. It’s like ‘If you do this, this will happen.’”
East Hall Middle School Principal Kevin Bales said middle school is the time when many gang members are first recruited.
“Middle school is where kids search for that identity,” Bales said. “Education is a huge thing, especially at the middle-school age because so many middle schoolers look up to role models of older brothers or older sisters and it is a perfect time frame to be caught up or get involved in gangs.”
The East Hall County area is home to many of the local gangs, including SUR 13, MVS and La Onda, authorities said.
“We’ve been relatively blessed to have very limited amount of gang activity,” Bales said. “Every once in a while there is tagging that takes place in the school and so forth.”
Bales said every year students are educated about gangs in the East Hall area.
“We conducted discipline meetings with each and every grade the first week of school,” Bales said.
Bales said the deadly Aug. 9 gang shooting in East Hall was a sobering example to students of gang violence in their neighborhood.
“What we educate our kids about is that even though it is not illegal to be in a gang, it is very true that gangs typically involve themselves in illegal activities. At this year’s discipline meetings it was easy to just refer to this most recent incident as a prime example,” Bales said.
Dyer said it is important for schools to recognize that local gangs are impacting students’ lives.
“Often people don’t want to talk about gangs because they think if they do they’re saying they have a huge problem,” Dyer said. “It doesn’t take a huge number. When a school does gang prevention or a parent program about gangs, it is not because we have rampant gangs running around, it is because we don’t want gangs at all.”