Police confirm parents' concern: There are gangs in Howard County Gang-resistance course beginning for seventh-graders

November 12, 1996|By Jill Hudson | Jill Hudson,SUN STAFF

When concerned parents met with county police last night to discuss juvenile crime, they seemed to have one question on their minds: Have gangs finally come to Howard County?

They got an official answer: Yes.

About 20 people came to the public meeting at Owen Brown Middle School to meet county police Sgt. Rick Maltz, head of the department's youth services section, to learn more about GREAT (Gang Resistance Education and Training.) The nine-week session is intended to help Howard County's 3,000 seventh-graders learn about gang activity.

Maltz's definition of a gang -- "a group of three or more people engaged in criminal activity" -- seemed to many parents an accurate description of what was happening in their neighborhoods.

"There is a lot of crime going on in Owen Brown village, and all over Columbia," said Gretchen Mour, a mother of two middle school students and an Owen Brown resident for five years. "There are kids out here who are up to no good, who are intending to put a sense of fear in people.

"These children have changed tremendously," she said, "and we've now got some rough kids out there."

"I think people don't want to adjust to the fact that there are gangs in Howard County," said Wanda Hurt, president of the Owen Brown Middle School PTA. "They don't want to face the fact that there's a problem in paradise."

According to a semiannual crime report, juvenile crime in Howard County is steadily increasing.

Forty-one juveniles were arrested for robbery in the first half of 1996, up from seven arrests during the same period in 1995, an increase of 486 percent. Juvenile arrests for aggravated assault increased by 54 percent in the first six months of 1996, from 26 arrests in 1995 to 40 this year.

Juvenile property crime arrests also increased by 11 percent this year.

Sgt. Kevin Burnett, the Police Department's high school liaison, said that while gangs in Howard County may not fit a hard-core prototype yet, there are signs that preventive measures are needed.

"We don't have the traditional, gangster disciple kind of gangs here in Howard County," said Burnett said. "Here, they call themselves crews, or posses, or mobs.

"Mostly, gangs here are involved in group assaults, vandalism like graffiti and tagging, street robberies, vehicle thefts, that type of thing," Burnett said before the meeting. "We don't want Howard County to become like Baltimore City and Prince George's County, where they have 50 known gangs.

"There's no magic moat around Howard that can keep these people out," he said.

County police have applied for state and private grants to fund a youth center in Columbia's Village of Harper's Choice that would offer a computer lab, homework tutoring and athletic activities for 14 to 19-year-old teens.

Not everyone felt that the youths congregating on Howard's streets constitute a gang problem.

"Most of the kids in Howard County are good, honest kids," said state Del. Frank Turner, a Democrat from east Columbia who attended the meeting. "I think these gangs that everyone is talking about are more social groups than anything. These are just a few kids who are somewhat out of control," Turner said.

Pub Date: 11/12/96

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