What's in a word? Maybe a lot when it comes to 'gang'

Published: Monday, November 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 1, 2004 at 1:43 a.m.
The Gainesville Police Department and Alachua County Sheriff's Office are at odds over how to describe what has become an emerging pattern of youth aggression in Gainesville.
While the Sheriff's Office hesitates to label the fights among area teenagers, the Gainesville Police Department believes the term gang readily applies.
The struggle with semantics, in part, is a disagreement about how best to handle public relations with a word that evokes images of youth violence, drive-by shootings and warring drug lords. The dance around the word reflects a balancing act between law enforcement and local officials to acknowledge that a problem exists, but not alarm the public by exaggerating the situation.
"I believe it's a perception issue. It's a concern over what you as an agency want to inform the public of what's going on in the community," said Heather Jones, juvenile division chief for the State Attorney's office.
Hostilities between neighborhood youth groups came to a head at an Oct. 13 fight at Eastside High School in which law enforcement officials used pepper spray to break up the fight and arrested eight students for disorderly conduct.
Officials believe the Eastside brawl resulted from tensions that first erupted on the afternoon of Oct. 8 at Greentree Village, where a teen was injured after someone threw a broken piece of cinderblock at his face.
Then around 9 p.m., carloads of teens drove to Lincoln Estates to retaliate. Another teen was injured when someone threw a brick at him and kicked him several times in the head.
Among those involved is a group from the Duval neighborhood that calls itself the "DC," and others from the Tree Trail Apartments complex on NE 9th Avenue who refer to themselves as the "Tree Trail Posse," both pitted against the "Southside Posse," mostly from the Lincoln Estates neighborhood.
At the crux of the issue, the Sheriff's Office and GPD disagree about whether the neighborhood groups fit the Florida statute's definition of a gang.
Statute 874.03 defines a "criminal street gang" as a "formal or informal ongoing organization, association or group" involved in criminal activity. Under the law, a gang technically involves three or more persons that have common colors, symbols and identifying signs.
The legal penalties for people convicted of gang-related crime can be harsher; a first-degree misdemeanor can be elevated to a third-degree felony at the time of sentencing.
GPD officials said they believe that while less organized than big-city gangs, Gainesville's youth are involved in what Juvenile Resource Officer Marc Plourde calls "hybrid gangs" that use signals and occupy a specific neighborhood.
Plourde said Gainesville gangs are not as hierarchal as those in larger cities. Gang members switch allegiances and "they don't have the same blood in, blood out mentality of more traditional gangs," Plourde said, referring to city gangs' violent initiations, where they beat up their members.
Gang wannabes?
By contrast, the Sheriff's Office is reluctant to call the feuding teenagers gang members, but describes the situation as youths posturing as "wannabe gang members."
"A lot of kids just try to make a name for themselves, but they don't really know what it is to be in a gang," said Jayson Levy, a deputy in the Juvenile Bureau of the Sheriff's Office.
Levy said the youths do not meet the statutory definition of gang member because they did not have pending criminal charges.
Levy said the agencies' disagreement about the word may be the result of their different jurisdictions.
"Sometimes it's how you see them and in what light," he said. The youths involved mostly live in incorporated areas, and GPD generally responds to those calls. The sheriff's deputies, who serve as school officers on a countywide basis, interact with the teens in school, where they are under tighter supervision.
"When they come to school, they know how to act," Levy said. When GPD deals with them at home in their neighborhoods, "if they don't have any supervision, they act however they want."
Dealing with incidents Plourde and Levy were certified as basic gang specialists at the Florida Gang Investigators Association's annual conference last week, where they listened to stories about Los Angeles' infamous Bloods and Chicago's Gangster Disciples, and discussed whether the gang membership in larger cities was similar to that of smaller municipalities like Gainesville.
When the fight at Eastside High initially broke out, the Sheriff's Office did not issue a news release about the incident. Sheriff's officials spoke with the Alachua County School Board and determined "this really doesn't rise to the level of putting a news release out," said Jim Troiano, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office.
The School Board agrees the incident did not appear to be a gang-related problem.
Gangs or not, the students received a 10-day suspension from school and a recommendation for expulsion, the maximum penalty, School Board spokeswoman Jackie Johnson said.
But the school board did not formally notify parents or release any public information to the news media about the Eastside fight.
"What would be the point of sending out a press release every time there's a fight between students?" Johnson said. "Students fight on campus. It's an unfortunate reality whenever you have a large group of students together."
Some parents expressed frustration at the decision not to notify the public.
"I think it does a huge disservice to parents who are trying to decide which high school to send their children to," said Lane Niesen, whose 17-year-old daughter attends Eastside. She praised Principal Michael Thorne's "excellent job" in handling the situation. Yet she said she felt the School Board needed to be forthcoming.
"If there is gang activity, then I think the parents and the community should know about it."
What about the word?
The word gang is especially sensitive at Eastside, where a controversial decision to rezone the school has brought in 150 to 175 new students, some of whom are from rival neighborhood groups.
Some parents and school officials are worried any negative perceptions of the school may discourage parents from enrolling their children in the magnet tracks - the International Baccalaureate Program and Institute of Culinary Arts.
But Linda Kallman, a member of the School Advisory Council whose 17-year-old daughter is a senior at Eastside, said she is not worried. She said the high school anticipated the problem by hiring more staff and adding special training for conflict resolution.
She said she felt the term "gang" should be communicated to parents as long as the term is clarified.
"If you announce there are gangs coming to Eastside you induce fear," she said.
But the way school administrators handled it, "they induced alertness and cautiousness," Kallman said.
Since the incident at Eastside, GPD's Officer Plourde believes, the problem has quieted down. Officials continue to discuss how to describe the issue, but they've also come up with solutions.
The Sheriff's Office has arrested juveniles for curfew violations at the Alachua County Fair, in an effort to deter tensions from escalating.
A few days after the fight, Capt. Tony Jones with the Boys and Girls Club organized a summit for teenagers at the McPherson Recreation Center.
"It was a first step trying to open some dialogue," Plourde said. "Since then, it's been pretty quiet."
Meredith Mandell can be reached at (352) 338-3109 or mandelm@gvillesun.com.

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