Communitywide effort vital to defusing Manatee County gangs

April 7, 2013 

Once the mounting threat of gangs exploded into the public's consciousness with the 2007 shooting death of a 9-year-old during a senseless confrontation, Manatee County took a variety of positive and successful steps to combat the problem. Now more must be done in the memory of Stacy Williams III, hit by a stray bullet during that gang dispute six years ago, and other victims of these criminal bands.

In first devising a strategy against gangs, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office came up with a ground-breaking approach -- building cases under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law, which allows prosecutions of defendants involved in criminal activity as a member of an organized group. Past and present crimes can be evidence of that, and hefty prison sentences often result.

Over the past six years, five successful RICO investigations took down 55 Manatee County gang members from at least three organizations. In addition, two SUR-13 gang members pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges just last week.

"We have a 100 percent conviction rate," Sheriff Brad Steube proudly noted in the Herald's in-depth examination of gangs in a series of articles published March 30 through April 1.

Gangs evolving

That incredible success will be challenged as gangs evolve. The most frightening developments in gang operations include a broader array of crimes and victims, even fraudulent tax returns -- and the bullying recruitment of intelligent youngsters to gain tactical advantages and avoid prosecution.

Plus, younger children are being drawn into gangs, as young as 5, and more women are entering the ranks.

While ongoing triumphs of law enforcement and prosecutors are essential, all of this should raise grave concerns in the community that more must be done to stem this tide -- more at the front end of this problem.

Preventing youth from initiation into a gang or helping them to escape a life of crime and violence are equally essential in this societal struggle.

The mentor approach

Manatee County is fortunate to be home to a number of people dedicated to this effort. Jerry Parrish, the teen outreach coordinator at the Manatee YMCA, is one. A pastor, he befriends at-risk youth, earns their trust and cares for them -- becoming a positive influence for kids, many with none at home.

He's been involved with Youth for Christ and the YMCA since his arrival in Manatee County in 2005 after years and years working the streets to save youth in other states.

Parrish also participates as one of several Y representatives on the Attorney General's Gang Prevention Task Force in Manatee County, which includes law enforcement agencies, Manatee Glens, the Boys and Girls Club, Manatee public schools and other organizations. But is that effort enough?

One of Parrish's remarks in the Herald's gang series suggests more citizen involvement is critical:

"If you don't take responsibility for your town, who will? We've got to take care of our kids. If we don't, it will become a crazy epidemic. If everybody in this town cared for one human being, it would be a different community."

A well articulated challenge indeed.

Value of Amer-I-Can

This community enjoyed an amazingly successful gang diversion program established in the public school system in the aftermath of Stacy's death. The Amer-I-Can semester-long course trained at-risk youth in life management skills, positive self esteem and self improvement. Only operating in four middle schools its first year, in 2007-2008, more than 300 students completed the course.

Parents hailed the positive changes in their children, from better behavior to improved grades. Manatee pioneered the program in Florida. The state cut funding after the first year, but law enforcement agencies and the school district recognized the valuable returns on this investment and kept it alive.

The school district conducted a program evaluation and statistical analysis of Amer-I-Can for the 2011-2012 school year, issuing a report last July. The study showed the program was not exclusive to the targeted student population of youth at risk of becoming juvenile offenders and grades did not improve for most students.

But one of the report's conclusions cited the overall positive impact on student life skills as determined by student and parent surveys. Furthermore, the study recommended that all teachers integrate essential life skills into everyday interactions with students.

The future of Amer-I-Can appears murky, however. The recent forensic investigation into the district's budget found the program had not been funded this school year.

Plus, the district's contract with Amer-I-Can expired in January. The program is not being offered this semester, and the budget for 2013-2014 has not been determined.

While July's analytical report did not specifically recommend the district abandon Amer-I-Can, that is a reasonable conclusion in reading the proposed course of action: that teachers incorporate essential life skills into everyday interactions with student; that students participate in another academic achievement program; and that volunteer mentors work with students.

Will this duplicate the achievements of Amer-I-Can's concentrated curriculum, where a single semester brings marked changes in many enrollees quickly instead of over the course of years? We're skeptical. How can classroom teachers give life skills much attention when faced with increasing pressure to improve test scores and school grades?

Or should Manatee's implementation of Amer-I-Can be tweaked to ensure only at-risk youth are served? We look forward to the school board and district discussion of this as the 2013-2014 comes together over the next few months.

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From community organizations to individual efforts, law enforcement to prosecutors, schools to government programs, a fully engaged citizenry is the best and perhaps only way to defuse gangs. By starving them of members one way or another, they will be a less potent force.

Like the saying goes, it takes a community to save a child from the dead-end gangster lifestyle.

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