Hank Dewald, Herald Staff Writer
HALIFAX — Many folks in the Valley don’t think there is a gang problem in rural, eastern North Carolina. The more than 100 attendees of the Community Forum to Eliminate Drugs, Gangs and Youth Violence are not counted among them.
The forum at Northwest Halifax High School last night was organized by Halifax County School Board Chairman Tyrone Williams because of an incident where a fifth grader was caught bringing a loaded gun to school.
“That really opened my eyes. I now know we have a very serious problem,” Williams said. He was so concerned he called N.C. Rep. Angela Bryant and Sen. Ed Jones. Both realized the seriousness of the problem and agreed to moderate a series of forums for the local community.
The two legislators not only agreed to participate, but also they brought representatives from of the most knowledgeable organizations to convince the residents there is a gang problem and that the signs of it are right in front of everyone each day.
Also, there were experts who spoke on school violence prevention, gun safety in the home, bullying in schools and types harassment, but the gang issue seemed to be what really grabbed everyone’s attention.
Halifax County Schools already has a an anti-discrimination, harassment and bullying policy as well as policies against weapons, dangerous instruments and alcohol and drugs in schools. A thick handout that detailed the school district’s policies was placed at each seat. Several speakers noted that having those policies in place was a positive step for the community and a necessary weapon in the fight against school violence.
According to most, more needs to be done and the first step is to realize the problem exists. That was the purpose of the forum and Williams wasted little time grabbing everyone’s attention.
“I’m standing here in front of you and I can’t tell you that my two sons are not involved in gang activities. This is a serious problem folks,” Williams said before throwing out some staggering figures on gangs and gang violence.
Williams quoted legendary NFL player Jim Brown, who has worked against gangs nationwide. “People don’t leave gangs. Have you ever known anyone who has left their family? You die out of your family. That’s the way it is with gangs, they are these folk’s families.”
Halifax County Schools Superintendent Geraldine Middleton also grabbed attention by saying she too previously believed there was not a major gang problem in the area. “I was truly shocked — horrified, when I heard what you are going to hear tonight,” she said. “No little community in the area is safe.”
Neither Jones nor Bryant was shocked. Both told the forum the problem has been growing for years and people have been complacent in their ignorance of the growing threat of gangs in the community.
Robert Temme, from the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, presented a Powerpoint presentation on school violence. He told the forum his organization is more research driven than dealing on a one-on-one basis with children, instead focusing on providing research for law enforcement agencies.
The CPSV stresses catching the problem early as the best way to prevent serious school shootings later, most of which occurred because of early instances of school bullying.
After hearing from Casandra Haynesworth, of the Governor’s Crime Commission, on grant money available to help in the fight against school violence, the Halifax County Sheriff’s Department and other local law enforcement agencies began giving their presentations, which were shocking to many at the forum.
Major Bruce Temple gave a short description of problems the Halifax Sheriff’s Department has seen on a nearly daily basis, before introducing Lt. Jay Burch, whose calm and “matter-of-fact” delivery was in sharp contrast to his pictures and descriptions of gang activities in the county.
Burch showed and described the local gang “tags,” which are their gang graffiti sprayed on buildings and walls across the county. He went through the purpose and reasons for the tags, which claim territory for the gangs and lead to violent confrontations with rival gangs and innocent bystanders who might enter that area.
“A ‘wanna be’ gang member is a ‘soon to be’ gang member” — a phrase seen often in the various police department presentations, but was graphically described by Enfield Police Department Detective Baesha Coppedge, who told the forum she knows first hand how serious the problem is because she was once a part of it.
Coppedge was first arrested when she was just 10 years old. “The signs are right in front of you,” she told the forum. “My grandmother never knew it, but they were right there in my book bag and all over my notebooks.” She said it is parents who need to educate themselves on the signs of gang life in their children.
“Be a little nosey,” she said, “There are signs everywhere out there. They are on BET (Black Entertainment Network) and in the lyrics of rap songs. Pay attention to what your children are watching and listening to.”
While Coppedge and the other law enforcement personnel were shocking, the Halifax County School Resource officers were even more shocking with their presentation of what is already occurring in schools now. Guns, knives, drugs and gang paraphernalia they have confiscated at local schools during the past few years. We paint over gang “tags” all the time and they are back up the next day, one officer said. “If you want to see one, just look in the men’s restroom right outside this cafeteria as you are leaving,” he told the group.
The SROs showed pictures of local gangs that are active all over the county. FAM, is an active gang in Enfield. There are the Enfield Bloods, the Littleton Area (LA), the Hollister Boys, the White Oak Click, the Medoc Click and many more. The SROs see them more everyday.
They showed pictures taken from their student’s Facebook and My Space pages on the Internet. The students were pictured holding drugs, cash and guns, while proudly “throwing up” gang signs. They posted these photographs on the Internet, so we’re not bothering to block out any faces, one SRO said.
Williams said the gang problems were and continue to be caused by what children are seeing on TV, hearing in music lyrics and seeing on the Internet. More importantly though, he said parents from up north and out west are sending their gang-member children to rural North Carolina thinking it will help them get out of the violent lifestyle. Instead, they bring the problem here with them.
After the forum, Jones said he was surprised that so many people were surprised by the facts presented. “I just know we can’t keep building $100 million prisons,” he said. “We’ve got to stop it from the other end to keep these people out of prisons. While some of these folks give us no option but prison, we have to take action to correct these behaviors before it gets to that point.”
“We’re here to educate folks tonight,” Jones said. “You can either learn it from the streets or learn it here. It is much easier if you learn it here.”