Fists and Facebook

Richmond schools and police combine efforts to squash gang activity and youth violence propelled by social media.

The Richmond Public Schools and the city’s law enforcement have been grappling with an uptick in youth violence that led to a string of gang-related brawls earlier this school year, prompting lockdowns, arrests and increased security.

The number of identified neighborhood gangs bumping up against each other in city schools has risen from four last year to six this year, police say. The Police Department defines gangs as groups of at least three members with a “common sign/symbol/identifier,” involved in multiple crimes, one of which is violent.

Police have executed at least 15 search warrants on the homes of students this school year, in some cases finding drugs and guns, says Richmond police Maj. Steve Drew, who directs the major crimes, special investigation and special operations divisions. No weapons have been found on students in school buildings, he says.

“Basically, we are bringing in kids from different neighborhoods,” Drew says — “Mosby, Creighton, the North Side — and they all go to John Marshall or Armstrong and that’s where we are seeing the conflict. It’s gang activity taking place in the schools.”

That activity includes threats, bullying, intimidation and fights — big fights involving many students. October, November and December were particularly tough months, he says, adding that there have been no gang-related fights in Richmond schools since late January when one broke out at John Marshall. That altercation resulted in charges against six juveniles. A school employee who reportedly tried to stop the students suffered a heart attack.

This is an old issue — rival neighborhood gangs attending the same school — with a new twist. University of Michigan School of Social Work assistant professor Desmond Patton calls it: “Internet banging.” As the 2013 abstract of his paper on the subject puts it, “Gang members carry guns and twitter accounts.”

New Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham recently lamented that when it comes to youth violence, “social media is crushing us.”

“Social media has been our greatest friend and our greatest enemy,” says Angela Jones, the director of student services at the Richmond Public Schools. “So much activity starts there. … What used to be passed in notes in the hallways is now public and it’s seen by many, many, many people and it moves so fast.”

What’s happening in the schools is taking place against a larger backdrop of rising youth violence marked by social media smackdowns that are turning into neighborhood fights, particularly at parties, Drew says. Spectators post video of the fights and the whole thing feeds on itself, police say.

It’s a difficult phenomenon to combat, says Sgt. Carol Adams, who works in the department’s Community Care Unit. “It’s going to take education, education, education. We have to change the mindset.”

To that end, the Police Department and school district this year established what may be an unprecedented collaboration — sharing information, performing student and family outreach, holding assemblies for students and parents and organizing police-led forums for youth.

“Let me put it this way, if something happens in the neighborhoods over the weekend, we are calling the schools Monday to let them know it might spill over,” Drew says. “Likewise, if they have something on Friday afternoon, they let us know so we can keep an eye on things over the weekend.”

For at least eight years, the Richmond Public Schools have had just one violence-prevention specialist. Now the system has hired four more, all working in the new office of Family and Community Engagement.

“We are making sure we are having honest and frank conversations with families,” Jones says. “We are going out to homes. We are not waiting for families to come to us. We had people who spent their spring break visiting student homes just to make that connection.”

Sometimes, she says, parents have no idea what their children are up to. Sometimes they know and don’t know what to do, and sometimes the children come from gang-involved families. The point is to offer support, options, and resources that might help, including mental health care. Gang violence won’t be tolerated in the schools, she says, but the message the district and law enforcement are working hard to send is not simply a punitive one.

“This is not just a school issue,” Jones says. “And to say that it is is to understate the issue. This is a community issue and we need to address it as a community.” S


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