GANGS - Dress code changes to keep up with gangs

Trends change, but gang members still can be known by their clothes.

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WALLA WALLA -- Scott Brashear keeps a box in his office at Walla Walla High School with items confiscated following reports of gang-related activity. Most of the contents are items collected from gang members through the years.

There are several navy blue canvas belts with silver buckles engraved with numbers or letters to represent a particular gang affiliation. The belts can be confiscated after rival gang members "flash" them at each other. In a typical confrontation, a boy from one gang may "flash" his gang sign at a rival gang member by lifting his shirt to reveal the buckle.

"That's gang activity," said Brashear, who has served as Wa-Hi's school resource officer for about 10 years. Students often face suspension after flashing signs during school.

Students who represent gangs try to adhere to a uniform, and the trends seem to fluctuate with time and to toe the line of the school dress code. When students were no longer allowed to wear entire outfits in one solid color -- navy blue Dickies shirts and pants, for example -- some students started mixing the same gear in black and blue. Students are also not allowed to let their belt straps hang below the knee, and the questionable buckles must remain concealed. The only athletic team jerseys students are allowed to wear are for school teams.

Within the box of confiscated goods are notebooks containing sketches and doodles that represent gang activity. There are the typical numbers that represent local gangs: 13, 18, 509, each sketched in a particular style. Sketches of a revolver, crying clowns, monikers, all rise to the threshold of gang activity.

"This in your notebook will get you suspended," he said, pointing out the different doodles.

An emerging trend in one local gang has been wearing rosaries as necklaces. The trend has popped up at other area schools, including Lincoln Alternative High and Garrison Middle School. Most gang trends, including the rosaries, occur statewide, and are not exclusive to Walla Walla, officials say.

Matt Bona, assistant principal at Wa-Hi, said the rosary trend has been particularly touchy, because of the religious freedoms students are allowed through law. But staff know, through briefings with law enforcement, that the rosaries are worn to send a message about gang affiliation.

"We just ask them to tuck them in," Bona said. "Most of the kids don't have a problem with that."

Other trends cropped up through time. There's been the Dickies clothing, and the ubiquitous navy blue canvas belts.

Wa-Hi's dress code clearly states no gang attire is allowed, but does not specify styles. District leaders meet regularly with the city Police Department and county Sheriff's Office to keep up-to-date on the latest or emerging trends in gang attire, signs and monickers.

"It does change," Bona said. "There are subtle changes here or there that come and go."

Bona said most gang-attire offenses are done at the start of the school year and then get popular again in the spring.

"Those are our two real heavy times when we see the gang attire and dress and things start creeping back onto the campus," he said.

Adhering to a strict dress code, which also prohibits sagging pants, skirts or tops that are too revealing, or flip-flop sandals, doesn't seem to stir much controversy on campus.

"For the most part kids are pretty compliant," Bona said.

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.

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