VALDOSTA — Parents of J.L. Lomax Elementary School students were educated on area gang activity by Officer Choice Barnes Thursday.

Barnes, a gang specialist with the Valdosta Police Department, spoke twice at the Valdosta city school, once in the morning and later in the evening to catch all interested parents.

While Barnes did get specific about area gangs, what he wanted parents to take away from the presentation was not fear but more knowledge as to what to watch for in their own homes regarding their children and gang activity.

A gang presence has been documented in the Valdosta-Lowndes County area for about 13 years, he said, and the surrounding counties, such as Echols County, have also seen an increase in gang activity.

The ethnic backgrounds are as varied as the demographics that make up the area. Traditional gangs well known throughout the nation are located here along with motorcycle groups and subversive groups that relate to radical racist ideals.

The age of documented gang members range from the early teens to mid-thirties, Barnes said the best way to curb gang activity is to intercept children as early as elementary school to prevent them from getting involved.

While Barnes discussed the presence of gangs, he showed those gathered gang signifiers from the area and several news clippings from The Valdosta Daily Times discussing recent robberies and crimes that are tied to gang activity.

In a particularly shocking slide, Barnes had photos of gang members who had been shot. Two were dead and all three had been shot by their own gang, Barnes said.

The most common indicators that a child may be involved in a gang can be noticed in behavior and appearance, he said. Just like a person getting a promotion in the workplace when a person is inducted in a gang they want to celebrate it.

“They want to let everybody know his or her status,” Barnes said.

The South Georgia Gang Task Force, which Barnes is a part of, has been active in the area for three years. The goal of the task force is to disrupt and dismantle whole organizations in the area. To do that, the Task Force and local law enforcement agencies need information from the community, he said, although he reminded parents, “It is not against the law to be in a gang.”

However, when a person commits a crime to help fund the organization, their activities within the game become punishable by law, he said .

“They can join a gang but a person is eventually going to have to go to work,” he said.

While particular colors and clothing do play a role in the identification of gangs, identifiers go much deeper. Slang, hand gestures, tattoos, burn marks and a particular placing of clothing on a persons body indicate someone’s affiliation within a gang. Gang indicators vary across the nation and many prominent gangs have begun to switch their signs and colors in attempt to mislead law enforcement, Barnes said.

“Graffiti is one of the first signs that you have got a gang in your area,” Barnes said. Graffiti is the newspaper of the street. Gangs and law enforcement officials can read the intentions and affiliations of gangs by observing graffiti.

Barnes urged parents to remove graffiti when they see it but to notify the police first so it can be documented.

He showed a series of slides displaying graffiti from a variety of local gangs that had tagged buildings and fences across the Valdosta-Lowndes county area.

Tattoos can indicate gang affiliation and can disrespect a rival gang much like graffiti. To disrespect another gang, a group will tag over a rivals graffiti, he said. Religious symbols like the Virgin Mary and the Star of David are also used as gang signifiers.

While Barnes urged parents to be aware of the clothes their child wears, he said he would not tell them what clothes not to buy but a child that inadvertently wears a gang signifier in a rival gangs territory could get into trouble.

“And they are not going to talk to them like you or I would,” Barnes said.

If a gang member is going to commit a crime they may say they are going to work or going on a mission, Barnes said.

Recruitment for gangs is conducted in both the public and private schools across the region, he said. Athletic events, teen night events and even church youth programs are prime spots for recruitment.

To prove their toughness recruits can be initiated in a variety of ways depending on the gang. Initiates can be beaten-in, participate in a crime and in the case of some female members forced to have sex with current members to become a part of the gang. Some females, Barnes said, are now opting to be beaten in like their male counterparts to prove their equality.

Second generation recruits or persons that have socialized with gangs and participated in illegal activities can be blessed in as well.

The South Georgia Gang Task Force has noticed that gangs have begun to initiate second generation members in the area, he said .

School Resource Officers in the Valdosta City Schools have received training in recognizing gang activity and signifiers. While SROs are encouraged to curb the activity within the schools, taking gang paraphernalia, like a bandana, off of a gang member could result in that member getting beaten up. Removal of a signifier, especially by a police officer or a person of authority, is seen as a violation by the gang and a member can be punished.

An SRO might tell a student to put the item away or take it for a period of time. If an item is taken permanently, the SRO fills out a report and the item is documented and taken to the Valdosta Police Department.

If a student is under the age of 18, their parents are notified that they can pick up the item at the police department, and if they are 18 or over they can pick it up themselves. Most never venture into the station to retrieve their items, Barnes said.

While gangs are always actively recruiting, some members do eventually get out. Some grow out of the lifestyle, while still others get married and begin families, being taken out of the environment by either moving away or serving time in jail or prison will also take a member away from the gang, Barnes said.

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