GANGS - Middle school turning point

Gang recruitment typically occurs before children reach ninth grade, schools find.

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Along with gang-themed belt buckles he has in his office at Lincoln Alternative High School, School Resource Officer Kevin Braman shows a switchblade that was confiscated from one of the middle schools. Although there is no way to conclusively prove that the switchblade was connected with gangs, Braman is called to the two area middle schools whenever questionable or dangerous items are found. May 26, 2010

WALLA WALLA -- Between elementary school and high school, before youths mature from children into young adults, lies middle school.

The middle school years, which cover sixth, seventh and eighth grades, are a time of exploration, growth, maturity and curiosity for students. With an age span ranging from 11 to 15, it is one of the periods in which children change the most, much like the first five years of life. It is a time when youths will explore new fashions and trends, friends and groups, sports and other extracurricular activities.

It is also believed to be the time when youths are recruited into gangs.

School leaders believe those students who choose gangs often have their affiliations by the time they enter ninth grade. A survey of Washington state youths showed students in eighth grade more likely to belong to a gang than high school students. The Healthy Youth Act of 2008 found about 9 percent of eighth-grade students, 8 percent of 10th-graders, and 7 percent of 12th-graders in the state belonged to a gang in the last year. Boys were more likely to be involved than girls.

With eight years at Garrison Middle School, Principal Gina Yonts has seen hundreds of students come and go. Some go on to achieve great things. But there are also the few who make poor choices and end up in jail.

"It's heartbreaking," Yonts said. "It is heartbreaking. And for the majority of those kids, you don't remember the negative."

Yonts hesitates to call any students at her school gang members, and believes a small group struggles with the pull of gangs. She estimates maybe 5 percent of the 620 students in her school have potential gang ties.

Yonts respects the changes her students are going through, which are often social, emotional and physical. She described one of her students, a boy, who is tall and built like an adult, but barely a teen at 13.

She and her staff keep that in mind as infractions of any kind crop up. She said she doesn't judge her students' choices as if they were adults making decisions.

"They really still are children," she said.

So when doodles or taggings appear in school, whether in notebooks or on school property, the first step is talking to the students and giving a warning. Suspensions and even expulsions follow when the violations merit action.

Arrests are rare at the middle school level, but more common in high school when youths are expected to have a deeper understanding of what is allowed and not allowed in school.

"We hope at that age they'll learn from their mistakes," said Kevin Braman, school resource officer at Lincoln Alternative High School who also serves Garrison and Pioneer middle schools.

Yonts says she follows the example of Garrison's former principal, Jim Sporleder, whom she described as the "first pastor of Garrison."

Sporleder left Garrison three years ago to lead Lincoln, taking over the district's alternative programs. Just a few blocks from Garrison, Lincoln serves some of the district's most at-risk youths. Braman's office is based at Lincoln.

The addition of Braman as a resource officer, a position created two years ago, has helped keep potential gang confrontations -- or other infractions -- in check.

Braman and Yonts felt the middle schools could be served by an additional officer. Braman said his department applied for a grant to cover such a position, without success.

Without the power to steer students' choices outside of school, Yonts and her staff work to direct students toward enriching and healthy choices while in school.

Like any school, Garrison strives to keep its students feeling safe, while keeping them focused on their educations. Middle school is presented as a time when youths can start to explore electives like band and choir, or athletics like football and baseball.

Above all, Yonts said she wants her students to take pride in their school, and take ownership of it. They are Troopers those three years, and will continue to be Troopers once they graduate to high school.

"When you're here, once a Trooper always a Trooper," she said.

And she also wants them to remember every day that she and everyone else at the school cares what happens to them.

"I tell them every chance I get, I care about you," she 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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