Parents learn signs of gang activity

Presentation offers tips on intervention, prevention


Sarah Lippa is certain that her 14-year-old son, Seth, is not in a gang, but she still wants to be aware of the realities of gangs - even in affluent Howard County.

That's why the Elkridge mother and about 50 others attended a gang prevention presentation this month and learned that some of the same gang problems found in neighboring counties exist in their own backyard.

"They [parents] really need to be more on top of what their kids are doing," said presenter Frank Clark, gang intervention specialist with the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. "In order to be involved in this problem, we need to be involved in it. We as adults tend not to be involved with what our kids are doing."

Clark showed images of gang paraphernalia, shared statistics about gang activity, taught residents how to spot signs of gang activity and offered ways to protect their children from gangs.

"I was concerned about my son," said Lippa, who attended the presentation with Seth and her husband, Dennis. "Not that he was in a gang. I'd like to know what to look for and what we can do to prevent it."

The presentation hit close to home for Dona Marshall of Columbia. A pupil at her son's school, Wilde Lake Middle School, was arrested this month after a BB gun was found in his locker.

Clark told the audience that BB guns are growing in popularity, especially among gang members.

"That really concerns me," said Marshall whose 12-year-old son, Xavier, is in seventh grade. "They [children] are away from you from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Anything could happen in that time."

Although there has not been a gang link with the Wilde Lake incident, gang activity has increased in the past four years in Howard County.

Testimony provided by a Howard County detective to the U.S. House of Representatives in April showed that the gang problem in Howard County surfaced in 2001 when the first member of Mara Salvatrucha - a gang also known as MS-13 - was arrested.

Since 2001, 55 identified MS-13 members have been arrested or involved with criminal activity in Howard County.

Examples cited in the testimony included:

Possible MS-13 involvement in a May 2003 homicide in Columbia.

A report of MS-13 members alleged to be providing security and protection to prostitutes and bordellos in the Stevens Forest and Long Reach areas of Columbia in September 2003.

A stabbing at a restaurant in Ellicott City in which MS-13 members are suspects in March 2004.

The arrests of two MS-13 members on concealed deadly weapons charges in Ellicott City in August 2004.

Howard County Board of Education member Mary Kay Sigaty called the presentation enlightening.

The presentation "made invisible things visible to me," Sigaty said. In particular, Sigaty was interested to know about how popular BB guns are with gang members. "Times are different," she said.

Clark and his assistant, Erica Harrington, a gang intervention specialist, gave parents warning signs and tips on how to identify gang members and activity.

"You have youth who think it is exciting or think it is cool to look like a gang member because it is exciting to have clout," said Harrington.

Youth typically join gangs, she said, to gain respect, for protection, and for love and support. Often members have low self-esteem, and gangs represent structure and loyalty, Harrington added.

Dennis Lippa said he wanted his son to attend the presentation to "see the downside of gangs so that they don't seem enticing."

Seth, a freshman at Howard High School, said gangs are not an issue at his school.

"I feel safe," Seth said. "There's teachers and friends around."

Sarah Lippa said Seth thought he knew all there was to know about gangs before the presentation.

"He has gone through training in middle school," Sarah Lippa said.

Warning signs

A person has to fit three of the following criteria to be identified as a possible gang member, said Frank Clark, gang intervention specialist with the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. "Just because a kid has one of these doesn't mean he is a gang member," Clark said.

The person admits gang membership.

The person has a gang tattoo.

The person wears gang clothing.

The person refuses to wear other than a specific gang color.

Gang graffiti found in room, on the person or in writing.

Police report indicates gang involvement.

Received information from a reliable source.

The person frequents a particular area and adopts gang-like characteristics.

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