Sept. 3—Law enforcement officials have long said gangs are present at every high school in Cobb County.
What’s new, according to Cobb County District Attorney Flynn Broady, is a trend of younger and younger kids — kids as young as 10 or 11 — being wanted for gang activity.
“We’re finding it now, they’re starting to start recruiting earlier and earlier in elementary school,” Broady told MDJ. “So if we don’t stop it now, by the time they get to high school it’s going to be 10 times worse than it is now.”
Broady, whose office prosecutes cases that rise to the felony level in Cobb’s juvenile court, said the problem is at least partly related to the fallout from the pandemic.
“Seeing the trauma at home from their parents because of the COVID issues, that’s definitely increased the availability or acceptance of kids to join gangs because the things they need from home they’re not getting,” Broady said. “So they look elsewhere and gangs usually try to fill that gap for them.”
Brodie said while some of the incidents have turned into violent crime, “the biggest thing we see is fights in schools and threats kids make against each other.”
As a juvenile case, Broady said he can’t discuss specific cases in detail and declined to identify which schools in Cobb are seeing the problems he described.
But, he added, “We had one case where we have the audio of what’s being said. And in the middle of that audio — we think it was a phone conversation — you hear an adult laughing. And to think an adult is sitting here listening to a child 10 or 11 years old talking the way this kid was talking and to allow that, it really bothers us.”
But it can become difficult for schools or prosecutors to tell the difference between a lunch fight and a true gang, according to Cobb Circuit Public Defender Scott Halperin, who spent several years in juvenile court representing children and families. their.
“Two kids could get into a fight and then be told it was gang related, or two gangs could show up planning to start a fight,” Halperin said. “The law doesn’t really distinguish between those two things.”
The same lack of distinction applies to Georgia’s criminal gang statutes, he added.
“There’s only one law,” Halperin said, that doesn’t distinguish between a full-fledged gang member and a teenager who may be marginally associated with criminal enterprise.
But Halperin argued that an adult – or even older adolescent – gang member is fundamentally different from a child.
“The role the gang plays in a young kid’s life is always going to be ambitious. The most you’re ever going to be is a young kid who’s being led astray by older gang members. And often, I think it might not even be the They just choose to identify with as such,” Halperin added. “I think it’s very dangerous for kids to get the message that it’s necessary to be in a gang. I think they get both of those messages. I don’t know exactly where they get it, but I think it is,” he said. “But in the case of a young kid — someone under 13, say … they’re not really gang members. They’re just not.”
State Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, argued that if there is still a growing gang problem, it shows that the state’s tough stance in recent years is not working.
“All this emphasis on gang activity, all this emphasis on labeling people as gang members, all this emphasis on the prosecutorial side of it, it doesn’t seem to be working,” Wilkerson said. “Then you have to pause and say, wait a second, are we doing the right thing? … By the time it gets to the DA it’s too late. By the time it gets to the DA, that means ‘we’ve already let a problem fester.’
Wilkerson said the fear of gangs has been used and could be used again to drum up support for more draconian school policing policies. If Broady wants to avoid that, Wilkerson added, he should name the schools where the problem exists.
“If he has a problem, he needs to be able to communicate it to the leaders of those communities at different levels,” Wilkerson said.
While Broady characterized the problem as growing, school officials in Marietta and Cobb, meanwhile, said they have yet to hear reports of younger children being recruited into street gangs.
“If there’s even one kid involved in gang-related activity, we have a problem,” said Marietta City Schools Superintendent Grant Rivera, but “I’ve had no reports of gang-related activity at the elementary school.”
Rivera added that as a former high school principal, he “wouldn’t be surprised by kids starting to engage in gang-related behavior in high school.”
Brittney Bridges, the district’s executive director of innovative practices, said the district has not seen any cases of elementary school children being drawn into gang activity.
“Fighting, battery, and gang activity are coded separately, but when an investigation indicates that the fight or battery occurred because of gang activity, both are reported. Trends in recent years do not indicate that fighting in schools is a manifestation of gang activity,” Bridges said in an email.
Cobb Board of Education President David Chastain did not respond to requests for comment for this story, and a request for an interview with Cobb Schools Superintendent Chris Ragsdale was not returned.
Cobb school board member Leroy “Tre” Hutchins said the DA’s warning was the first he had heard of the alleged problem.
“This is not up for debate, which means it hasn’t risen to any level of concern where some community intervention is needed. If it’s happening, and it might be happening, we might need some training on how to recognize it or even respond, because I’m not sure that’s something we’re seeing,” Hutchins said.
This is one of the recipes that Broady suggested.
“Cobb County Schools has a great program where they do gang awareness instruction for their principals,” Broady said. “One of the things we want to do, though, is get it down to the teacher administration level so they can see the same things that are being taught to principals, and even reach out to parents and get on board.”
Randy Scamihorn, a Cobb school board member and former educator, said, “I haven’t (heard of it) at the board level … I’ve only been out of the classroom, out of the school, about 10 years now, and I didn’t see much of a problem with it at a newer level.
“I don’t see it being any better in Cobb County than it has been throughout history, and the task of making sure it stays that way is to stay vigilant and stop it whenever there is evidence that someone is trying to get something new. the younger ones (the children) are involved. Stop it early. Otherwise, it just metastasizes,” Scamihorn added.