Gang activity increases, gets more violent

Only a small fraction of Richmond County students were disciplined for gang activity this past school year, but the number grew and the activity became more vicious.

In all, 23 students were found guilty by disciplinary tribunals during the 2007-08 school year for violating the school system's code of conduct Rule 22, which forbids gang membership and gang activity. That's up from 15 a year ago for the school system of 32,000 students.

Students beat up their classmates as an initiation into gangs, beat up members as a way out of the gangs and beat up members of rival gangs -- all on Richmond County school campuses during class hours, according to testimony given during discipline hearings.

"These kids choose to be treated that way," said Executive Director for High Schools Lynn Warr, who was injured breaking up a gang fight in 2007 at Cross Creek High School. "That's what is shocking to me."

In February, two self-described members of the Crips forced a classmate into a restroom at the Academy of Richmond County, according to a school tribunal report. One gang member punched the student 12 times in the chest, and the other punched him three times until the student slumped over.

"The was punishment for the student inadvertently destroying the 'book of knowledge' for the 'Crips,' " a tribunal report said. "Also, he refused to procure $125.00 as instructed."

The gang activity is a reflection of the community, Ms. Warr said, and it's getting worse as students move in from other states and get ideas from watching television.

The attack was among several more brazen acts in Richmond County schools during the year.

"I think every one of them wants to outdo the other," Ms. Warr said. "They gain status by what they do, and they want to be the one."

The viciousness doesn't surprise Devon Harris, a local gang-prevention expert. He serves as executive director of Full Circle Refuge.

"That world is all about respect and disrespect," Mr. Harris said.

Ms. Warr said it's important for staff members to be aware of what is happening within their school, paying close attention to the colors that students wear and quashing gang activity before it takes root.

Mr. Harris said gangs flourish in a lack of awareness.

"We know it's there, but people are in denial," he said.

A tribunal called in January declined to find four Sego Middle School students guilty of violating the gang policy. Instead of pursuing the gang violation, it sent the case back to Sego to be handled by administrators at the school.

A month earlier, the four students had gone to a classroom, gotten a classmate and taken him to the restroom, where they punched and beat him. The student was "jumped in," a way of initiating the student into the gang.

The tribunal found that the students didn't understand the seriousness of their actions, so it allowed them to disband the gang.

Ms. Warr said kicking students out of school doesn't always solve the problem. Instead, it puts troubled students out on the street.

"Really, education is a way for them to get another life," she said.

But gangs are trying to recruit new members. In October, a Murphey Middle Charter School eighth-grader was removed from class for being disruptive. The public safety officer testified in the tribunal that the 14-year-old was actively trying to recruit new gang members at the school.

The student told her he didn't worry about the police or going to jail because his gang would "hold it down" while he was away.

These incidents come about a year after Operation Augusta Ink. In November 2007 law enforcement agencies completed a 16-month investigation that led to a cross-county roundup of gang members.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.