Officer Chris Szabo of the Regional Gang Unit presented information about WCSD’s Gang Resistance Intervention Program (GRIP) at Reed High School. The GRIP program, which was started by the school district in 2008, is designed to give parents the tools they need to keep their children from becoming involved in a criminal gang, as well as to inform students of the dangers of gang affiliation.
“There are 97 gang groups in our area,” Szabo said, which is why in 2001 the Reno and Sparks police departments, WCSD and the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office completed an inter-local agreement to establish a single multi-jurisdictional gang unit.
“The multi-jurisdictional gang unit is not bound by jurisdiction limits,” the WCSD website states. “The officers from each agency have been deputized by the sheriff to investigate cases anywhere in Washoe County.”
Two WCSD police officers are assigned to the Regional Gang Unit and are charged with investigating gang crimes, graffiti crimes and interviewing gang members and individuals who interact with known gang members.
“Along with investigating gang crimes, officers in the RGU work to suppress gang crimes, as well as gang membership,” the site states. “Officers speak with parents and students about the dangers of the gang lifestyle, and what warning signs parents can look for if they are concerned their son or daughter might be involved with a gang.”
Szabo told parents (and a few students) Tuesday that gang membership in Washoe County is on the rise.
“In September 2009, there were 1,980 gang members,” Szabo said. “In August 2010, there were 2,155 gang members – and those are just known gang members. Those numbers are going up.”
In the schools, students begin forming gangs primarily in middle school, Szabo said.
“They start in middle school and then they move into high school and get bigger and stronger,” Szabo said, adding it usually begins with a group of friends forming a gang.
But not every group of friends that hang out together qualifies as a gang, Szabo said. Under Nevada Revised Statute 213.1263, a criminal gang is defined as a group of individuals that meets the following criteria:
• A combination of persons organized formally or informally.
• They continue their operation if people enter or leave the organization.
• Has a common name or identifying symbol.
• They engage in criminal or delinquent activity.
“The key is that they engage in criminal activity,” Szabo said.
Szabo spoke for almost two hours Tuesday and used visual aids to help parents understand what they need to look for in their children and what to do if they think their child is in a gang.
Gang indicators can include a sudden change of friends; coming home late from school; drug use, including narcotics, alcohol and marijuana; confrontational behavior; gang graffiti on notebooks; lower grades; skipping school; possession of weapons; use of nicknames like “Joker”; tattoos; change in hair, dress or style; newfound sense of bravery; unexplained injuries; defending gang activity; and unexplained materials, Szabo said.
“If you didn’t buy it,” Szabo told parents, “they got it somewhere. Find out where it came from.”
Gang members often will give younger children items in exchange for work, he said.
Unexplained injuries could come from being “jumped into” a gang, Szabo said. Members who are “jumped into” a gang are beaten for a specific amount of time, usually 13-18 seconds, by the other gang members, he said.
“Females are generally ‘sexed in,’ ” Szabo said. “This involves having sex with multiple members of that gang.”
What is a parent to do if their child is involved in a gang? One option is consulting a member of the school police such as Szabo, who said he works with parents and students to help the child or teen get away from the gang.
“I tell them to go slowly,” Szabo said. “Start getting new friends, get into athletics, band, drama or other after-school activities.”
Often, Szabo works with the parents to get the student into another school.
“A lot of times what we see is it is the neighborhood they are living in,” he said. “It’s hard to say ‘no’ when they’ve been friends since they were 6 years old.”
The Children’s Cabinet offers a variety of family services free of charge, Szabo said, such as family counseling and gang programs.
“The gang program keeps them off the streets,” Szabo said.
The most important action a parent can take in keeping their child out of a gang is giving them the support, moral structure and attention they need at home.
“I really want to stress it all starts at home,” Szabo said. “Your kid isn’t going to be out joining a gang if he is home washing the dishes and doing chores.”
The GRIP class for students is held every other Thursday night at Hug High School in C Building from 7 to 9 p.m. Students are referred to the class by administration at their schools, but parents are more than welcome to attend without a referral, the WCSD website states.