Sep 3—Law enforcement officials have long said gangs are present in every high school in Cobb County.
What’s new, according to Cobb County District Attorney Flynn Broady, is a trend of younger and younger kids, kids as young as 10 or 11, being wanted for gang activity.
“We’re realizing now, they’re starting to recruit earlier and earlier at the elementary school level,” Broady told MDJ. “So if we don’t get it under control now, by the time they get to high school it will be 10 times worse than it is now.”
Broady, whose office prosecutes cases that rise to the level of a felony in Cobb juvenile court, said the problem is at least partially related to the fallout from the pandemic.
“Seeing trauma at home from their parents due to COVID issues has definitely increased the availability or acceptability of kids joining gangs, because things they need from home they don’t get,” Broady said. . “So they look elsewhere, and the gangs are usually trying to fill that void for them.”
Broady said that while some of the incidents have escalated into violent crimes, “the biggest thing we’re seeing is fights in schools and threats that kids are making against each other.”
As these are juvenile cases, Broady said he can’t discuss specific cases in detail and declined to identify which schools in Cobb are experiencing the problems he described.
But he added: “We had a case, where we have on audio what was being said. And in the middle of this audio, we think it was a phone conversation, you’re hearing an adult laughing. And to think an adult is sitting here listening to a child 10 or 11-year-olds talking about the way that kid was talking, and allowing it to be done, really disturbs us.
But it can be difficult for schools or prosecutors to tell the difference between a lunchroom fight and a true gang fight, according to Cobb Circuit Defender Scott Halperin, who worked for several years in juvenile court representing children and their families. families.
“Two kids could get into a fight and then be told it was gang related, or two gangs could show up planning to start a fight,” Halperin said. “The law doesn’t really make a distinction between those two things.”
The same lack of distinction applies to Georgia’s criminal gang statutes, he added.
“There is only one law,” said Halperin, which does not distinguish between a full-fledged gang member and a teenager who may only be marginally associated with criminal enterprises.
But Halperin argued that an adult gang member, or even an older teenager, is fundamentally different from a child.
“The role that the gang plays in a little kid’s life is always going to be aspirational. The most you’re going to be is a little kid that’s being ripped off by older gang members. And often I think that might not be the one they just choose. identify themselves as such,” Halperin added. “I think it’s very dangerous for kids to get the message that being in a gang is necessary, or even cool. I think they’re getting both messages. I don’t know exactly where they’re getting it, but I think they are,” he said. . “But in the case of a young child, someone under the age of 13, let’s say…they’re not really gang members. They just aren’t.”
State Representative David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, argued that if there is still a growing gang problem, it shows that the state’s hardened stance in recent years is not paying off.
“All this emphasis on gang activity, all this emphasis on labeling people as gang members, all this emphasis on the procedural aspect, doesn’t seem to be working,” Wilkerson said. “So you have to pause and say, wait a second, are we doing the right thing? … By the time I get to the DA it’s too late. By the time I get to the DA, that means you’ve already allowed a issue.
Wilkerson said fear of gangs has been used, and could be used again, to garner support for more draconian school policing policies. If Broady wants to prevent that, Wilkerson added, he should name the schools where the problem exists.
“If you have a problem, you have to be able to communicate it to the leaders of those communities at different levels,” Wilkerson said.
While Broady characterized the problem as a growing one, school officials in Marietta and Cobb, meanwhile, said they have yet to hear reports of younger children recruited by street gangs.
“If there’s even one child involved in gang-related activity, we have a problem,” said Grant Rivera, superintendent of Marietta city schools, but “I haven’t received any reports of gang-related activity at the elementary school.”
Rivera added that as a former high school principal, “he wouldn’t have been surprised if kids started displaying gang-related behavior in middle school.”
Brittney Bridges, the district’s executive director of innovative practices, said the district has not seen any cases of elementary school-age children who have been involved in gang activity.
“Fights, assaults, and gang activity are coded separately, but when research indicates that fights or assaults were due to gang activity, both are reported. Trends in recent years do not indicate that fights in schools are a manifestation of gang activity. Bridges said in an email.
Cobb Board of Education President David Chastain did not respond to requests for comment for this story and a request to interview Cobb Schools Superintendent Chris Ragsdale was not granted.
Cobb school board member Leroy “Tre” Hutchins said the district attorney’s warning was the first he had heard about the alleged problem.
“That’s not a topic of conversation, meaning it hasn’t reached any level of concern where there needs to be any community intervention. If it’s happening, and it may be happening, we may need training on how to even recognize it or even respond, because I’m not sure that’s something we’re looking at,” Hutchins said.
That’s one of the recipes Broady suggested.
“Cobb County schools have a great program where they provide gang awareness instruction to their principals,” Broady said. “But one of the things we want to do is get down to the administration level of teachers, so they can see the same things that principals are taught, and even reach out to parents and get them on board.”
Randy Scamihorn, a Cobb school board member and former educator, said, “I haven’t (heard of it) at the board level… I’ve only been out of the classroom, out of school, for about 10 years., and I didn’t see a big problem with that at the younger level.
“I don’t see it being any bigger in Cobb County than it has been throughout history, and the job of making sure it stays that way is to stay vigilant and stop it whenever there’s evidence someone is trying something new.” to get the youngest (children) involved. Stop it early. Otherwise, it just metastasizes,” Scamihorn added.