WINNSBORO — Are there gangs in Fairfield County? If members of the sheriff department citizen’s academy had any doubt of the presence of gangs in this area, those were dispelled following a proactive effort by Sergeant Steve McDonald to educate about gangs, gang warning signs and gang-related crimes.
McDonald said that most of the gang-related activity in the county is from local groups who might claim to be loosely affiliated with national gangs such as the Crips or the Bloods.
McDonald used multimedia such as a video of a young boy “stacking” or doing an elaborate series of hand gestures which essentially are a form of gang sign language, to show how gangs recruit members as young as age 8 or 9. He pointed out various instances of graffiti found around the county on road signs and bridges.
McDonald pointed out that it is not illegal to be in a gang, but that gangs with their culture and initiation rituals often are the harbingers of getting young people involved in criminal activity. Gangs and drugs also often are linked, though not always.
In the west side of the county in Blair and Jenkinsville, there has been evidence of 135 Westside, a supposed spin off of the the DS-25 gang from Greenville. Members of the gang were involved in a Jenkinsville murder within the last two years, underscoring the danger a gang group can pose to law abiding citizens.
Parents need to be attuned to the behaviors of their children and need to know who their children’s friends are and where the children are at all times.
Dr. Janet Mason said that one of the allures of gangs is that seven of 10 children in this county have no father in their household. The gang can fill a gap in that youth’s life that should have instead been filled by a supportive adult. In that vacuum comes beat downs, or theft as initiation or a girl being sexed into a gang (having sex with the gang to get initiated).
The sheriff’s office decided years ago that the place to combat that harmful behavior was in the school system. McDonald said that in addition to school resource officers supplied by the district that the sheriff’s department and Winnsboro Public Safety encourage officers to stop by and interact with schools while they are on patrol.
The goal is to have a presence that builds a relationship with young people, so they learn that law enforcement is there to support them and is not a threat to them.
That trust factor is crucial.
“A school is a reflection of the neighborhood,” McDonald said, “and with Fairfield being so spread out and all our students coming into one melting pot at the high school, conflicts from the weekend could spill over into the school week.”
Deputies give a heads up to school resource officers so they can be aware of any such spill over. He said that has allowed them to serve a counseling and proactive role to diffuse situations before they become problems.
He said Ridgeway has seen an increase in gang activity because people are going into Columbia and getting more hard core into the gang culture there. Once they get plugged into that, the gang networking comes back up the I-77 corridor to the Ridgeway area, in particular, but there has been evidence throughout the county that gang activity is taking place.
Officers dare to make a difference by educating youth about how to make the right decisions, how to walk away from a fight, and how to dream of a life beyond fast money and fancy cars that gang members have as part of a risky thug culture.
One thing the officers must combat is the culture that the best way to keep out of trouble is not to snitch on others, particularly on gang members. Often gang on gang violence goes unreported to law enforcement.
The biggest part of the school resource officer, McDonald emphasized, is that he and the officers working under him are RESOURCES. Whether it be for teaching classes, speaking to youth, being a listening ear, providing legal information to parents (not legal advice), the goal is to be involved in three areas to make sure students have a save environment in which to learn.
The SRO does not enforce school discipline. The school does that in accordance with district policy. SRO’s enforce the law. Crisis management and crime prevention are his goals, though at times he must wear his investigator’s hat and also use his tactical police training to arrest a student.
Those incidents, he said, are few and far between and come with the territory. However, the overall SRO goal is providing a means for teenagers to navigate the often tricky waters of adolescence and emerge on the other side as productive members of society.
It takes an entire community to give these young people a reason to hope and to find belonging elsewhere than in a gang, and thanks to efforts like the citizen’s academy, more community members’ eyes are being opened to this problem and to ways to take a stand to stamp it out.