ATHENS, Ga. - Training by police is helping the Clarke County School District combat gangs by helping school officials recognize gang behavior and deal with the problem before it gets out of hand, police and school officials said.
At Burney-Harris-Lyons Middle School, gang graffiti and other gang-influenced behavior that was once rampant has all but disappeared, School Resource Officer Paul Davidson said.
"When I first got here, a good bit of it was going on, and I don't think the people knew what it meant until I taught them what the different tags and numbers meant," Officer Davidson said.
Gangs claim turf by spray painting property with their groups' names, symbols and other markings - called tags - and members identify group affiliations by the clothing they wear, hand signs and other means.
"I can tell you that there has been a big decrease in visible signs" of gang activity or influence, Officer Davidson said.
Although experts say gangs try to recruit members at the elementary school level, gang-influenced behavior is most often found in middle schools, where children are looking for a group identity.
As recent as two years ago, county officials denied that street gangs existed in Athens-Clarke County, despite the proliferation of graffiti by such gangs as Sur 13 and Los Primos.
It was not until January 2004, when a Mexican gang targeted a rival group in a drive-by shooting, that police acknowledged a serious problem. After the shooting, Athens-Clarke police formed a gang intelligence unit and graffiti-removal squad.
Then all Athens-Clarke police officers, including school resource officers, were required to attend training led by Marco Silva, an investigator with the Gwinnett County Police Department's Crime Suppression/Gang Unit.
Mr. Silva, who once belonged to the Latin Kings, one of the nation's most violent street gangs, now trains officers on how to combat gangs.
"It's important that we look at gang violence because we can't let it take over," he said. "We're new at the gang game in Georgia, but we're leading many of the states in combating the gangs."
To successfully divert gangs, Mr. Silva said, adults must show children that gang life is not as glamorous as it's sometimes portrayed in popular culture.
Clarke County Schools Superintendent Lewis Holloway said the training has helped the district protect children from gang influence.