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Officials educate public on gangs

BRADENTON — Law enforcement and school officials issued a unified warning Monday about the gang problem in Manatee County: Without help from parents, their work is just a bandage on the problem.

Members of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office and Manatee County School District spoke to the League of Women Voters of Manatee County, outlining their view of the gang problem in Manatee.

About 20 gangs are dealing in drugs and violence on the streets of Manatee County, Sheriff’s Gang Suppression Unit Det. Garrick Plonczynski said. The number of gang members in Manatee fluctuates between 650 and 800, the unit estimates.

Gangs fuel the drug trade and are a source of violence — especially in schools, Plonczynski said.

“With gangs on the rise, school violence is on the rise,” he said.

School officials told the group that recruitment into gangs can begin as early as elementary school — to which Plonczynski showed a slide picturing a piece of paper covered in gang-related drawings, confiscated from a Manatee student’s notebook.

It has been a busy year dealing with reports of suspicious gang-related activity in the schools, said Manatee’s head of discipline, Mike McCann.

“We have responded to around 200 reports this year of students wearing gang colors, and flashing gang signs,” said McCann. “So it is a growing concern.”

There are also continuing signs of gang activity in schools such as graffiti, and students with suspected gang ties congregating in the same place before and after school, and during recesses.

“They love to tag the bathrooms with graffiti as a way of claiming them,” said Manatee High Assistant Principal Ann McDonald.

There is also a fear among administrators that gangs are becoming more entrenched in the schools to get stronger, according to McCann.

“They seem more sophisticated, coming to school for the purpose of conducting business, whether that be selling drugs or recruitment,” he said. “They actually want to be in school for that reason.”

All of the speakers said there are many intervention programs that the district employs, and sheriff’s officials have arrested dozens of gang members in recent years, but parents often remain ignorant of what their children are into.

“It is really about what is going on at home,” said Sheriff’s Sgt. Gary Combee, who heads the gang suppression unit. “We are going to continue to make arrests, but the fact is by the time they see us, it’s already too late.”

Combee praised initiatives throughout the county by the school district, YMCA, Boys and Girl Club, and other non-profits as the first line of fighting gangs. YMCA Pastor Jerry Parrish often speaks to students at elementary schools — the age where he believes intervention must begin — about the dangers of gangs.

“We are working with these kids trying to take away their excuses for being in a gang,” Parrish said. “If they are hungry, we give them food. If they need someone to care about them, we care about them. Pretty soon they forget about the gangs and they start being kids again. You can see it happen.”

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