Student assault puts officials on gang lookout

AIKEN - A mother's concern about an assault at Aiken High School has turned up a possibly larger problem in the school - gangs.

It was the way the Jan. 10 incident unfolded that alerted authorities to the issue.

In a boys' bathroom at the high school, at least 10 students crowded around two others and waited for the countdown to "Go!"

Thirty seconds later, the two boys were given a "beat down," or initiation into a gang, that was recorded on a Nokia cell phone, officials who viewed the recording say.

"It was obvious to us that it was a prearranged fight," Principal Joe Padget said.

Mr. Padget said youths have labeled the brawls "beat downs" and they last about 30 seconds.

This is believed to be the first, and hopefully the last, such incident at the school, he said.

One of the students who was beaten pinned the incident on a fictitious person to keep it a secret. But after being questioned by a teacher and administrators, Mr. Padget said it became clear that the fight wasn't random.

"We wouldn't have known anything else about the initiation or who was part of it without the cell phone," Mr. Padget said.

"We're starting to see some of the same things that other communities are putting up with and they had to start somewhere, but I won't allow that seed to be planted," he said.

But Capt. Wendell Hall, Aiken Public Safety spokesman, said gangs are not a new thing in Aiken.

Capt. Hall said he couldn't speak about specific events in the school district but that gang members range in age from 12 to mid-20s and many are open about their involvement.

In the last year, Aiken High School added a second resource officer to canvass the growing campus that currently serves 1,686 students.

"Do students walk up and down the halls worried? No," Mr. Padget said.

Still, the principal added, "as a school and community we cannot ignore it and pretend it will go away."

Mr. Padget and other administrators said a lot of what they see is copycat behavior.

"We're getting more and more aware of the issue," said Dr. Randy Stowe, the Area 5 assistant superintendent. "We monitor the warning signs and are becoming more familiar with the problem. We want to deal with it in a proactive manner."

Capt. Hall suggested that being proactive means not waiting for the warning signs to appear.

"Most people make a mistake because they look for warning signs instead of spending times with kids," Capt. Hall said. "If you see warning signs you may have waited too late."

Before the problem grows, Mr. Padget said, a uniform discipline policy would help combat future issues.

"We don't immediately suspend everybody for fighting, but I'm not willing to let it become a part of the culture at Aiken High School," he said.

Reach Julia Sellers at (803) 648-1395, ext. 106, or julia.sellers@augustachronicle.com.