GANGS - Keeping the peace

Scott Brashear, Wa-Hi's resource officer, helps keep gang activity at the school to a minimum.

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Sheriff and Walla Walla High School resource officer Scott Brashear leans against a bridge on the high school campus to make sure students are behaving appropriately as students shuffle-by en-route to classes. Tuesday, May 25, 2010

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Keeping students on the straight and narrow, Sheriff and Walla Walla High School resource officer Scott Brashear casually patrols the WaHi commons during a round-campus trip to ensure students are behaving appropriately during the third lunch period. Thursday, May 25, 2010

Scott Brashear takes a stroll through Walla Walla High School most days about the same time. As hundreds of students flood the halls, walkways and grounds of the campus, Brashear hits a couple of familiar spots.

This particular morning's passing period, when students shuffle from one class to the next, is cold and damp and students are not killing time between classes like some often do. Brashear pauses a moment facing an open quad outside the school's main office. He focuses on several students who have stopped to socialize. Catching his glance, the students move on.

"We have a certain group that likes to go to school, but doesn't like to go to class," Brashear said.

His stroll continues, through buildings, past the commons and into the gymnasium, where students are milling before the start of physical education class.

The students draw Brashear's attention because of the affiliations they keep.

"It's not a big secret to the student body, or the staff, who they are," he says about students who are gang members. On his walk, he points out a table outside the commons where several members of a particular gang usually sit.

"They don't cause any trouble, but they're a presence," he says.

Brashear has been Wa-Hi's resource officer for about 10 years. He is outfitted like any deputy, his work belt including a revolver and a Taser -- neither of which he has ever used at the school. With the exception of the belt, his uniform is less formal than a patrol deputy, with a polo shirt replacing a more formal work shirt and gear.

Brashear is employed through a partnership between Walla Walla Public Schools and the Walla Walla County Sheriff's Office.

Sheriff Mike Humphreys said the opportunity arose several years ago to secure a grant to cover Brashear's salary for about three years. Humphreys said the need to base an officer at the city's largest high school followed a high volume of calls for service at the campus.

Before a resource officer was hired, deputies responded to close to 180 calls at the school in one year, ranging from reports of assaults to minor thefts.

"Just lots of calls for service out there," Humphreys said. "Part of it was gang-related."

The calls went down to about 70 the first year Brashear served the school, Humphreys said.

"Since he went out there, it has been very effective ... as far as quelling gang issues," he said. "Now we don't seem to have any."

Brashear works with the support of three security guards, as well as dozens of security cameras throughout the campus.

The work Brashear and the guards handle is not limited to gangs. Problems with students bringing marijuana to school, getting into fights or being at school intoxicated transcend gang participation.

"Other kids have other problems outside of school, that we have to deal with here at school," Brashear said. "This (gangs) is just another problem that we have to deal with here at school."

But gang members do have a presence at the school. And because gangs by nature toy with violence, vandalism and other criminal acts, any sign of gang activity is handled seriously.

Being in a gang alone is not grounds enough to discipline a students. Warnings, suspensions and expulsions are reserved for gang activity, in whatever form it may surface. That can be flashing gang signs, or wearing clothing that has been prohibited, like national sports team jerseys.

"It's not against the school rules to be a gangster," Brashear said. "It's against the school rules to do gang stuff."

What Brashear said he hasn't seen much of is recruiting into gangs on the campus. It may be happening outside of school, although recruitment is believed to typically take place before a student reaches the ninth grade.

"Most of them have made a decision before coming here," he said. "We see our freshmen coming in with whatever affiliation they have."

Although charged with upholding the law, Brashear also has an unstated mission. And that's helping students stay in school and reaching graduation.

Taking away the offenders serves the purpose of keeping other students safe and focused on school. And any student considering breaking the rules or laws has Brashear's constant presence on campus as one deterrent.

Assistant Principal Matt Bona said simply having Brashear at the school sends a clear message to students.

"Having Scott as a presence on campus is really a big thing," he said.

Although Brashear's work includes keeping gang activity at bay, he says he understands why some teens choose to belong to a gang.

"It's their tribe," he said. "Some of them do the stuff so they can belong to the group." But there are also those who are drawn for the violence.

Brashear reflects on a Wa-Hi student arrested and charged for stabbing a woman during the 2009 Walla Walla Balloon Stampede.

The boy, who committed the crime when he was 15, was sentenced to a youth corrections facility until his 21st birthday.

"Up until that point he was at least trying," Brashear said.

Bona said the student had been attending Wa-Hi through its Twilight program, which helps students earn back deficient credits to graduate.

Brashear said he believes gang problems at the school have been addressed the best they can. Even the gang-related taggings and flashing of signs are uncommon for those who are still at the school.

"If you want to come here and go to school and not do your gang thing, that's what we want," Brashear said. "Those who don't aren't really here anymore."

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317.

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