A menacing symbol spray-painted across a welcome sign outside the Aberdeen Boys & Girls Club dispels any doubts about whether gangs are active in town.
"Look at that sign, and then clean it up," Cpl. Tom Gamble of the Harford County Sheriff Office's gang suppression unit said to an audience of about 300 gathered at the club last week for a gang-awareness initiative. "Don't give gangs the satisfaction of seeing their graffiti."
Club members erased the symbol the next day, but they said they hope the message delivered by Gamble and other law enforcement and town officials remains.
As a branch of an organization with a long history of providing kids a counterweight to the allure of street life, the Aberdeen club faces a scourge that has emerged only in recent years.
"We have to work on the prevention side because it is a lot easier than intervention," said Donald W. Mathis, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Harford County. "We can give these kids a better opportunity for a productive life than gangs. We help them realize that they have choices."
Organizers of the awareness initiative detailed the history of various gang movements, most of which date to the 1960s, and presented information on gang lifestyle available on the Internet. Police also warned parents that the Internet can be a catalyst for initiating youth into gang culture.
Photographs of seized weapons and drugs, as well as pictures of graffiti on area schools and the county detention center, were displayed. Speakers reviewed symbols associated with gangs -- a crossed-out "B," the number six or a bulldog paw print usually burned onto the upper arm with battery acid.
"Look in their schoolbooks and their book bags," Gamble told parents. "Kids use them as billboards. Look for clues. The majority of the recruits are 12 to 17 years old."
Presenters detailed hand signs, tattoos, beads and clothing associated with gangs. One officer recalled a family who mistook their son's bedroom decor for artwork, until they learned about gang symbolism.
"Unless it's on a farmer driving a tractor in North Harford, a red bandana probably means something else," said Detective Scott Yosua of the sheriff's intel unit.
Aberdeen Mayor S. Fred Simmons said he thought the Philadelphia Phillies had a strong pull with town youth, until he learned a red "P" is another gang symbol.
"This problem is not pervasive, but these gangs have come to do battle on our turf," Simmons said. "They are at our boundaries, and they will come to Aberdeen, if there is business here for them. We will do everything we can to keep them out."
Supporting efforts like the town's Boys & Girls Club, which offered programs to about 700 children last year, can help deny the gangs access to youth, said Simmons, who donates his annual mayoral salary to the club.
"It is money effectively spent," said Simmons.
Harford's four branches of the club have an annual budget of $1.6 million and rely heavily on donations and volunteers, Mathis said.
Nearly 4,000 Boys & Girls clubs across the nation open their doors to more than 4 million youths annually, according to the organization's Web site. Founded in 1860 to give boys an alternative to roaming the streets, the club long ago included girls and officially revised its name to reflect that change in 1990.
Gamble urged families to "push your kids into the club and involve them in sports and other activities."
The Aberdeen club, housed in a stark, white one-story building on East Bel Air Avenue, stands as a nondescript outpost in a modest neighborhood. On most weekdays, dozens of pupils from Halls Cross Roads Elementary School come across the street to the club, where they are joined by older children who walk from elsewhere in the area.
A typical afternoon begins with "the power hour" devoted to homework.
"My homework is not too hard, and they always help me here," said Cierra Grant, 6.
Dyana Flemings, 7, said, "We get help, and after we are done, we get to play games."
The club offers children art projects, computers, indoor and outdoor sports, and field trips. About 30 were headed to Camden Yards today, where they were to watch the Orioles play from seats in a corporate skybox.
"This is a good, healthy place to be," said Shaun Nickens, 16, who walks to the club daily after classes at Aberdeen High. "It keeps me off the streets and in good physical condition. If I need help with schoolwork, I get it here."
On a recent day, he worked on a computer, played basketball with his friends and challenged a soldier from Aberdeen Proving Ground -- one of 16 who volunteer at the club -- to a game of pool.
An increase in gun-related calls two years ago spurred formation of the county Sheriff's Office gang investigation unit. The effort has led to the identification of more than 120 people involved in gang-related crime and 27 incarcerations.
Aberdeen police also have stepped up the attention devoted to monitoring gang activity.