CITIZENS VOICE AND HAZLETON STAND SPEAKER
Local legislators team up to fight gang violence in schools
April 3, 2012
By AMANDA CHRISTMAN (Staff Writer) | Photo’s By ERIC CONOVER (Staff Photographer)
After a teenage girl leaving a Hazleton school was abducted and beaten at a nearby playground March 15, government leaders say they continue to push for community involvement to combat gang violence.
The incident was orchestrated by gangs, but two lawmakers have their own plan to fight gang activity.
State Sen. John Yudichak and U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta launched Operation Gang Up last year as their constituents watched gang activity unfold on the streets.
The March 15 beating, Barletta said, is an example of why it is important for communities throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania to send an anti-gang message. The first step in combating gangs, he said, is admitting a problem exists, and steps have already been taken to expose that gangs are present in the area.
Yudichak said the "tragic" incident March 15 showcased that gang violence not only exists but also that there are "citizen heros" in the community who came to the victim's aid while she was being beaten at Altmiller Playground.
The culture of fear and violence is permeating the local school environment, Hazleton Area School Board President Brian Earley said at a recent Rotary Club meeting. "These are students who aren't afraid of teachers. They're not afraid of their parents. They're not afraid of law enforcement," he said.
A grant to hire a second state trooper at the high school is among the aims of Gang Up, a bipartisan, bi-county initiative meant to expose gang activity, raise public awareness and provide education in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties.
Partnerships were forged through Operation Gang Up, leading communities in Northeastern Pennsylvania to pull resources. National gang experts with the Federal Bureau of Investigation also joined in to help conduct public forums on the issue of gangs in the community, Yudichak said.
Two public forums addressing issues with gangs have already been held in the area and a third is planned for May 3 at 6 p.m. in the education conference center at Luzerne County Community College in Nanticoke. Two more public forums are planned for this year.
The May forum, Yudichak said, will focus on community partnerships and how communities can fight back by being informed and engaged. "We cannot and we will not ignore gang violence against our children," Yudichak said. "Not our neighborhoods. Not our children," he said sternly.
Yudichak and Barletta, at a press conference Monday morning at Hazleton Area High School, pleaded with the community to get involved and attend the public forum.
Since Gang Up began, Yudichak and Barletta met with all 11 superintendents in Luzerne County to bring gang awareness to schools and they talked with leaders in Lackawanna County to combat the problem.
Schools, Yudichak said, particularly the Hazleton Area School District, have been terrific at addressing the problem of gangs. Barletta also praised the district, stating that instead of hiding gang activity from the public, school officials informed them.
State Rep. Tarah Toohil said Hazleton Superintendent Francis X. Antonelli and High School Principal Rocco Petrone have been proactive in their approach at the district's campuses when it comes to education about gangs and implementing practices to identify gang affiliations.
Antonelli said the district has applied for three grants to help combat gangs. One grant will address resistance to gangs and will be focused in the fifth through seventh grades, an age bracket targeted by gangs. A second grant partners with Serento Gardens, a Hazleton-based drug and alcohol prevention and treatment center, and will focus on drug prevention 180 days each school year in kindergarten through 12th grades, while a third grant would employ a second full-time trooper at the high school.
Meanwhile, Barletta and Yudichak are overseeing workgroups with law enforcement, the Pennsylvania Association of District Attorneys and other lawmakers, such as Sen. Lisa Baker and Toohil to bring forth laws that will toughen penalties for gang activity. The goal, Yudichak said, is to provide police and district attorneys with laws that bring stronger sentences.
Yudichak said within one month, a legislation package will be introduced to lawmakers and if there is enough early support of the anti-gang law, the bill would get approved soon.
Yudichak said Gang Up is also working with the Hazleton Integration Project to give area children a safer, healthier life.
Gang Up began after the U.S. Department of Justice reported in 2010 and 2011 that gangs are moving into Hazleton because of its close proximity to bigger cities, the market for drugs and a limited police presence. But, the report not only showed the danger in Hazleton but in the region, Yudichak said.
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