WALLA WALLA - Many of the area's gang members aren't attending school, but they sure are getting an education.
An alarming phenomenon law enforcement officials now are encountering is multi-generational gangs with brothers, cousins - and even fathers involved in the same criminal group.
"It scares the bejesus out of me if dad and older brother have been active and good at what they do," said Walla Walla police Sgt. Randy Allessio. "(The younger kid) not only learns from them, it's like he's going to gang college in their own home."
Walla Walla police Detective Kevin Bayne added that the curriculum centers on instant gratification. "Where we're going to party, plotting fights, tagging, selling drugs and acquiring firearms."
Norrie Gregoire, detention manager at Walla Walla County's Juvenile Justice Center, agrees. "It's fun (for them) to go to parties, get cheap drugs, get into fights and have girls," he said. At least that's what they think at first as they mimic older relatives and struggle for a sense of belonging and identity.
But it's a dangerous, potentially life-threatening course. "The unfortunate thing is," Gregoire said, "When you try on that gang hat, it's for keeps."
Once a kid is "jumped in," meaning he's subjected to a fight with multiple people for an established period of time to become a member, "jumping out" can be dicey. It can be accomplished with a simple beating or result in more severe punishment depending on whether the circumstances of the departure are "honorable" or "dishonorable."
Gang membership is all about "respect," Bayne explained. "Fear is gained through violence. They view that as elevating their level of respect."
Just like all youths - particularly those who feel isolated, lonely and incapable of taking part in socially elevating activities such as sports, band or choir - those who become gang members want to "fit in."
"Being in a gang is instantaneous acceptance," Bayne said. "I'm good now. Right now. I just became part of a group that accepts me."
With it also comes protection, structure and rules, which often are lacking in homes rampant with substance abuse and domestic violence. The gang literally becomes a de facto - albeit dysfunctional - family for its members.
"Gangs are a huge attraction" with their candy-store enticements of drugs, camaraderie and excitement, said Mike Bates, director of the Juvenile Justice Center. "And (would-be members) are groomed way down there, as little kids."
Allessio said officers have obtained video of a local gang party at which a member is seen forming a young child's hand into a gang sign.
"That's child abuse," Allessio said. "(Eventually) he's probably going to get knifed, stabbed or shot. We shouldn't tolerate that."
In addition, music, video games and movies depict the gangster lifestyle as "stylish," and Latino members from Southern California move to the area spreading temptation like a disease.
"It's easier to live up to a stereotype than to fight it," Bayne said. "(They see it as) part of being Mexican or Hispanic to be a gangster.
"But it has nothing to do with ethnicity. It has to do with being a gangster."
Terry McConn can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8319.