Getting streetwise at forum on gangs
April 24, 2011
By Jerry Lynott (Staff Writer )
WILKES-BARRE – While police continue to investigate whether the machete attack near GAR High School earlier this month was gang-related, several hundred people attended a forum Thursday night on how to prevent the spread of gangs in their communities and schools.
State Sen. John Yudichak, background, and U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta were on hand Thursday night at the King’s forum.
A packed auditorium of teachers, politicians and concerned citizens overcrowded the King’s College’s Burke Auditorium to discuss the threat posed by gangs to the area.
Teachers, parents, school and law enforcement officials heard from local and national gang experts, including FBI agent D. Darell Dones, during the two-hour program at King’s College.
“Nobody but nobody is not affected by gangs,” said Dones, an instructor in the bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit.
He warned the more than 250 people in the audience about the presence of gangs locally despite the distance from New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia, where they have strongholds.
“Just because you don’t see ’em, don’t mean they’re not there,” said Dones. “You just gotta know what to look for.”
Changes in a child’s or student’s behavior, the wearing of certain colors, having unexplained cash, jewelry or clothing, could be signs of gang involvement or influence, he said.
Dones spent the past few days visiting with officials from Hazleton Area and Wilkes-Barre Area school districts and the Luzerne Intermediate Unit and liked what he saw in terms of the programs in place.
He also lauded the efforts of state Sen. John Yudichak and U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta who joined together in “Operation Gang Up.” The local initiative discussed at the forum calls for community and law enforcement cooperation to address the issue of gangs.
“This is not a paper tiger. This is something that we could be proud of and I know it’s going to work,” said Dones.
He acknowledged it will take time and effort to accomplish the goals of the initiative whose number one priority is to keep down criminal violence.
Barletta, a Republican and former Hazleton mayor, said he and Yudichak, a Democrat, put politics aside and asked the community to come together to send a message about gang activity.
“And that message is not in our neighborhood, not in our schools and not with our children,” he said.
The program, the second of five to be presented locally, was planned well in advance of the Feb. 9 assault in which a 15-year-old GAR student nearly had his left hand severed. Police charged a 16-year-old boy as an accomplice in the assault. They are looking for the 19-year-old man who allegedly swung the machete.
“That incident brought more attention to effort,” said Yudichak, and gave the presenters at the forum the opportunity “to try and take that negative and turn it into a positive.”
Brian Lavan, a former city police officer who is the director of police operations and security for the Wilkes-Barre Area School District, said the district does not have a problem with the presence of gangs that affects the daily operations of the schools.
The district 12 years ago placed school resource officers in the schools and had the officers trained in gang awareness, he explained. Since then, students have been arrested for possession of weapons, drugs and drug paraphernalia, assaults and theft.
“I can tell you in 12 years all the incidents the SROs investigated none were directly, directly involved with gang activity,” said Lavan.
But the district’s students are influenced by gangs, he acknowledged.
“We’re a reflection of our neighborhoods,” he said. “What goes on in Wilkes-Barre comes into our schools. We are public schools.”
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