Gang hostilities spilling over into our high schools?

Published: Saturday, October 12, 2013 at 7:13 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 12, 2013 at 7:13 p.m.

Last month, two Gainesville High School students got into a brawl in a classroom.

They knocked over chairs and fell on tables. They were locked to each other, throwing punches, Gainesville Police Department Officer Jermaine Hutchinson wrote in his report.

Other students and the teacher were in the room, and it was apparent they were "afraid and desperately trying to get away from the fight," Hutchinson wrote.

And while the students were being separated, one was throwing up gang signs.

"(The student) was present at almost every altercation that has occurred over the past several weeks at GHS regarding disputes with opposing gangs. (He) is a documented gang member," Hutchinson wrote. "There have been several altercations over the past couple of weeks regarding the 8th Ave. crew, Out West crew and the Village Green crew. These altercations involve fights, heated verbal disputes, intimidating postures (gang signs) and stare downs at opposing gangs."

September's violence was part of an outbreak of fighting at high schools in Gainesville in recent weeks that has school officials and police alike worried that neighborhood gangs are bringing their animosities to campus.

Samuel Haywood, middle and high school discipline specialist for Alachua County Public Schools, said school staff have had meetings with students, parents and others to try to calm tensions.

"Right now, it is a real problem. I'm not sure why this year there is, all of a sudden, this rash of gangs and groups forming up. All of the schools — Eastside, Buchholz and Gainesville High School — have had meetings to try to quell this," Haywood said at a recent Black on Black Crime Task Force meeting. "There are a lot of things going on to try to keep a lid on this to keep it from getting out of hand."

Haywood added that the school district is trying to screen problematic students and get the "hardcores" to the Horizon Center, an alternative school.

But alternative centers and programs are limited, Haywood said, which makes quelling gang feuds difficult.

"We have to really screen and get the hardcores out of the schools to the Horizon Center, but at the same time you can't put all of them out there because if you do you have more problems," Haywood said. "As they get referred to the student services department, we're doing what we can to screen them and split them up and try to break some of these groups up. This is a problem — I'm being honest with you. There is a lot of it happening right now."

School officials and police have met with fighting students and their parents. Haywood said the mother of one student was reluctant to get involved because she was afraid her house would get shot up.

Police said the situation has calmed down since the meetings.

Both the Gainesville Police Department and the Alachua County Sheriff's Office have officers who focus on gang activities.

Authorities estimate Alachua County has 59 documented gangs ranging from branches of the nationwide groups such as the Bloods to cliques from specific neighborhoods such as the Tree Trail Posse and Glen Springs 21st.

Local gangs have an estimated 700 active members, authorities say. About 6 percent are between the ages of 13 and 17, while 70 percent are between 18 and 27, according to a presentation given by GPD gang specialist Jesus Rivera at the task force meeting.

In 2012, about 231 gang-related crimes were recorded, authorities say. Of those crimes, 34 percent were violent, while 10 percent were burglaries.

Alachua County Sheriff's Detective Jayson Francis said gangs exist throughout the county. A map with documented gangs shows them in towns such as Hawthorne and LaCrosse as well as Gainesville.

Francis said gangs are in all the schools, adding that in addition to GHS, fights have occurred recently at Buchholz High. Older teens or young adults begin recruiting students when they are young, Francis said.

"It's easier to get people to buy into your system when you start. The other part is that it is part of growing up — they may have older brothers or cousins, and it becomes normal and a part of their upbringing," Francis said. "The most important thing to remember is that gangs affect all areas and all facets of society. They are in all of our schools. It's a very small portion of the population (causing) a large portion of the problems."

School district data show that 11 fights have been reported so far this school year at Buchholz, none at Eastside, 17 at GHS, nine at Hawthorne, two at Newberry and 12 at Santa Fe High. The data doesn't distinguish gang-related fights from fights that do not involve gangs.

GHS school resource officers Hutchinson and Nate Ellis said several fights this year appear to have originated with gang issues during non-school hours that the students carried into the schools.

Ellis, who has been a GPD resource officer at GHS for several years, said he could not recall any gang fights in the past.

None of the fights this year involved weapons or resulted in injuries.

Just a handful of students are causing the problems, the officers said. Several of them had been in programs run by the state Department of Juvenile Justice and are new to GHS.

"Normally, it's retaliation for something that happened off-campus. Once that person retaliates, at the next party or the next event, they retaliate. It's like a never-ending cycle," Ellis said. "We've been trying to work with the kids and get them to follow the policies. We have a zero-tolerance approach to fights on campus."

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