Gang education symposium draws large crowd

Published 10:00 pm Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Temple of Jesus Christ Family Life Center was packed with people of Friday, all there for a single purpose: to learn more about gangs.

Law enforcement, social workers, educators, judges, probation officers and concerned residents from across eastern North Carolina traveled to Washington for the Gang Free North Carolina Symposium, an all-day event that delved into gang psychology, the many gangs operating in the state and handed out the tools to recognize the signs of gang affiliation, from graffiti to sports clothing, to accessories like jewelry and laces.

The free symposium was hosted by Washington Police and Fire Services as a proactive approach to gangs and gang activity in Beaufort County, according to Police and Fire Services Director Stacy Drakeford.

“We are seeing an increase. We don’t exactly have a true accurate number, but we do have some validated gang members,” Drakeford said. “We are starting see some things starting to bleed over from other counties and communities.”

Drakeford said it’s the younger generation that concerns him — 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds who say they belong to a gang, which falls in line with statistics: the average age of a gang member in North Carolina is 14 years old, according to J.P. and Michelle Guarino with North Carolina Gang Investigators Association.

Drakeford and WPD community outreach coordinator Kimberly Grimes, who had previously attended the symposium, brought in the Guarinos to educate people about gangs: what to look for, why gangs exist and what programs should be put in place to prevent at-risk children from going down that dangerous road.

“We are obviously seeing more and more gang prevalence in this area,” said District Attorney Seth Edwards, who attended the event on Friday. “Today has opened my eyes to some of the signs that I didn’t know before.”

Roy Parker, a Washington financial advisor, said he attended because his high-school-age son told him there were 15-20 gangs in Beaufort County, and Parker simply wanted to know more.

Parker, and more than 150 people who signed up for the event, got that knowledge.

With more than 20 years working in gang taskforces — Michelle Guarino as a licensed social worker and civilian supervisor working with Chapel Hill Police Department; J.P. Guarino as the criminal gang intelligence project manager for the North Carolina State Highway Patrol — the Guarinos are well versed in all aspects of gang life.

“There’s nothing different about the gangs in North Carolina than there are in Chicago,” J.P. Guarino told the audience. “They’re a little less disciplined here and a lot more dangerous.”


With a steady stream of images projected on a big screen, J.P. Guarino introduced those in attendance to the major gangs operating in North Carolina, their origins and symbols. Onscreen, he pointed out that gang signs and symbols are apparent to those familiar with them, but meaningless to those who aren’t. One example he used was of a second-grade class’ school yearbook picture with one child throwing up a gang sign.

“Look at how young he is. What kind of influences are in his life?” J.P. Guarino asked.

Once someone has gang awareness, the signs can be obvious. Without that awareness, many communities are in denial.

“The data says we have major gang presence in all 100 counties in North Carolina. There are still communities that will tell you they don’t,” Michelle Guarino said.

Michelle Guarino spoke about her experience working with gang members and the “push-pull” that draws young people in: a “push” from neglectful caregivers and the lack of attachment; the “pull” of a perceived better existence and sense of belonging.

For some children, gang membership fills basic needs that aren’t being met at home: love, pride, increased self-esteem, acceptance and discipline, Michelle Guarino said. Structure and support, taken as a given by many, is absent from their lives.

“We have expectations that they know our ‘normal;’ (that) their normal is our normal. It’s not,” Michelle Guarino said.

Gang membership provides a sense of identity outside of the family, along with peer friendship, status, excitement and the acquisition of resources. At the same time, 67 percent of gang members said they believe that having a supportive family would have prevented them from joining a gang, Michelle Guarino said.

“If 67 percent would admit it, I guarantee it’s 82 percent,” she said.

She also said that teachers should be aware that the children who end up in gangs aren’t necessarily those one would expect: “They’re bright; they’re the ones (in the classroom) that are disengaged, uninterested, not turning in homework.”

Teachers and school staff being able to recognize the signs of gang involvement is critical, not only to keep peace in the classroom, but to solve gang-related crimes, according to J.P. Guarino.

An example would be what appears to be an innocent drawing on a school desk, he said. If it’s gang graffiti drawn during one class, a non-gang member sitting in the seat in the next class could be a target for a member of the same gang. J.P. Guarino urged teachers to be aware of any such desk graffiti, take a picture of it, report it to the school resource officer then remove it immediately. Suspected gang-related clothing, accessories or jewelry also should be reported to SROs, though teachers should avoid confrontation, he said.

“What should a teacher do? Confiscate it? I wouldn’t. Always contact your SRO,” J.P. Guarino said.

As for solving crimes, J.P. Guarino said it was the chain of reporting at a school that helped Wilmington law enforcement solve a double homicide: a teacher recognized a small six-pointed star, a Crips symbol, on a 13-year-old girl’s notebook and told an administrator; the administrator told the SRO; the SRO called in J.P. Guarino’s gang unit. His casual question of “what’s the worst thing you’ve ever witnessed a gang do?” resulted in the child saying she knew who killed two women in Wrightsville Beach and where the second body was located. Police had built a case against the fiancé of one of the women and were close to arresting him when the 13-year-old told J.P Guarino what she knew.

“We were able to prevent an innocent man from being charged and solved two murders,” J.P. Guarino said.

Michelle Guarino stressed the importance of having programs available for at-risk youth, as well as having an entire community working together to lessen the lure of gang membership.

“There’s been a lot people who have told me, ‘We are resource poor.’ No, you’re not. How many people are in this room?” she asked.

She encouraged the entire community to get involved: school administrators, concerned citizens, parents, law enforcement, city and county government, probation and parole, mental health, community centers, juvenile court and judges, the hospital, college and faith-based organizations, but after one audience member challenged WPD and Drakeford to set such a project in motion, Michelle Guarino pointed out that law enforcement and elected officials could not logically lead such a project — law enforcement, because the at-risk would likely be unwilling to approach them; and elected officials may not win the next election which creates instability.

“If I wasn’t willing to help, we wouldn’t be here on the Friday afternoon. Some people come to us and think we are the end all and be all, and we’re not. We’re just a part,” Drakeford said. “What I’d hate to do is we leave today and nothing happens, and we all talk about it for a week then put in on the back burner.”

At Drakeford’s suggestion, Grimes will act as “a conduit,” connecting local stakeholders to create a cohesive diversion program. For more information, call Kimberly Grimes at 252-943-1715.