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Education Official: Parental Involvement Key to Overcoming Gangs

May 18, 2009 — LaVelle Campbell speaks the language of gangs, and he wants to teach it to parents, school officials and police throughout the territory.
"Some individuals in our community have their heads in the sand," he told a crowd full of parents and children Saturday at the Shiloh Seventh Day Adventist Church in Tutu.
But, Campbell said, gang activity among youth in St. Thomas and St. John is growing, and can only be stopped with proper education and intervention from adults.
Campbell told the crowd that he sees firsthand the way gangs affect local children in his work as the district's school safety manager for the Department of Education.
He said violence in the schools can be fierce — and told of one fight where a group of 12 girls at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School jumped two others. He said the crowd around the beating was thick, making it difficult for him and other school monitors to get to the girls. When he finally made his way to the center of the melee, one girl was being badly kicked and beaten. He had to spray mace to get the girls to back away, and still, as he moved away from the crowd with one of the victims, another student tried to hit her again.
Campbell said such fights are becoming more and more frequent. More often, fights are not just one-on-one affairs, they involve whole groups of young people.
"This has to be organized stuff," he said. "They had to organize to do this."
One way gangs organize, he said, was through the use of words and symbols. He said what the average parent may dismiss as simple graffiti can actually be a dangerous message. And the students know how to speak the lingo, Campbell added.
Campbell keeps an extensive photo library of graffiti collected from public buildings, school buses and bathrooms, many of which have been incorporated into a slide presentation given Saturday night. Without hesitation, students in the audience were able to shout out what many of the symbols mean, identifying gang markers and crews from all parts of the island.
The letter "m," for example, stands for the word "massive," a local term that has replaced the word "gang."
"You see, parents, I bet you had no idea that your children already know these things," Campbell said.
Campbell takes the pictures himself, with his own camera, so that he can keep himself up to date on what the gangs are up to, and so that he can show parents what to look for. He said that graffiti should be taken seriously.
"It's not just writing — they are doing what they write," he said. "They are living what they are writing."
Campbell said it took some convincing for school and island officials to listen to what he had to say about gangs.
"You're going to scare the people," he recalled one school official telling him.
But now they have come around, and he said he gives his presentation on gangs to full and attentive audiences around the Virgin Islands.
"The first step was to educate the people," Campbell said. "The next move is for legislators such as Human Services, VIPD, the Department of Justice to do what they have to do."
He said it's important for lawmakers to understand that this is an issue that they must act on immediately.
"The old way isn't working," he said. "We have to do it a new way."
Campbell said there are good laws on the books, but those laws have to be enforced.
He also said parental involvement is key. Although he will not turn away youths who show up for his presentations, he said his main targets are parents. Not only can they help spot the signs of gang affiliation in their children, but it is their love, Campbell said, that can dissuade a child from joining a gang in the first place.
"The opponent of a gang is love, family," he told the crowd.
Campbell said he gives his presentation to whatever groups are interested. He hopes to collaborate soon with Weed and Seed, a federal program that targets at-risk communities. Campbell teamed up with the group in April to educate law-enforcement officials about gang activities. Campbell said he hoped to do another program soon, this time focusing on educating the general public.
Editor's note: Ananta Pancham contributed to this story.
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