09/30/07 — Residents, officials discuss how to beat youth violence

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Residents, officials discuss how to beat youth violence

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on September 30, 2007 2:05 AM

Gangs have been around for years in Wayne County, says Ronald Benton, who said he "grew up hard" on the streets of Goldsboro years ago.

A "product of the projects," Benton lived in Westhaven until his mother's death when he was 11.

Moving in with his grandmother, who already had a house full, he recalls many a night going to sleep surrounded by elbows and feet in the cramped quarters.

A graduate of Goldsboro High School and now regional consultant for the N.C. Gang Investigators Association with Pitt County Sheriff's Department, Benton welcomes opportunities to talk about the pitfalls of gangs and violence because he's lived it.

"I know how it is to run scared at night through the neighborhood. I have been there," he told the near-capacity crowd at Goldsboro High School Saturday for the Youth Violence Awareness Summit. It was sponsored by Smart Choices for Youth and Wayne County Public Schools.

The six-hour event served as a call to arms for parents and the public to wage war against threats of violence and gang activity in the community.

For Benton's portion of the program, he provided a snapshot of findings from the N.C. Gang Investigators Association regarding gangs in eastern North Carolina.

Rattling off names of the more popular gangs in Wayne County -- Bloods, Crips, MS13, BPL, skinheads and Latin Kings among them -- Benton challenged parents to take up the charge before their children become targets for gang involvement.

"If you hear nothing else, parents, stop being your child's friend. They need a parent," he said.

He encouraged parents to pay attention to any changes in their child's behavior, such as wearing gang colors, getting tattoos, acquiring a new nickname. Other signs include declining grades, truancy, change of friends, suddenly having a large sum of money.

The lure for gang membership centers around a sense of family, protection, respect, but can also be attributed to power, anger, intimidation and peer pressure, Benton said.

What can be done? Keep the lines of communication open, he said, getting to know the child's friends and setting firm limits.

Mayor Al King said what disturbs him is the number of teenagers involved in criminal acts -- drugs, breaking and entering, attempted murder.

"And once they're arrested, they're in a heap of trouble, and it's too late then for all your support agencies to get you out of it," he said.

King's advice to parents, relatives and neighbors? Be nosy.

"If you see something happen, and you know if it's right or wrong, bring it to the parents' attention, (even if) they may not like it," he said.

It's time for a public outcry against the problem, said Daryl Woodard, executive director of Smart Choices for Youth. "I'm committed through our organization and working with Wayne County Public Schools and every entity," he said.

Wayne County Sheriff Carey Winders said he was tired of the killing and seeing young people in jail.

"More of our young people are in jail for one reason -- they associated with the wrong people or they didn't have the guidance at home," he said.

The need for community involvement is imperative, as awareness of the issues surrounding youth violence grows, said Joe Testino, chief court counselor for the 8th Judicial District, which serves Wayne, Lenoir and Greene counties.

"There's many exciting things that are going on across the state that are creating an atmosphere of success for youth. This summit is just one of them," he said, noting that for programs to be successful, though, volunteers are needed.

The school system has also imposed several changes to ensure safety and security, said Chris Barnes, security coordinator. In addition to shoring up the district's relationship with law enforcement agencies, all the high schools have been supplied with metal detectors to prevent weapons being brought into schools, and drug dogs are used to ward off problems in that area.

"We're making changes and new policies to make it safer for learning," he said.

Goldsboro High School Principal Patricia Burden said several options are being offered at the high school to provide other outlets for students, especially in the late afternoon hours between school and the arrival of parents from work.

"We're starting an after school program, offering the opportunity to participate in different activities that they would not normally have the opportunity to participate in because of finances or transportation or because they're not offered close to them," she said. A $10,000 grant from the county commission will make the endeavor possible, she noted.

"We're going to do that this year, hope to start at the end of October, pilot it for nine weeks, evaluate it ... and continue during the second semester."

The bottom line, she said, is that education will always be important. Keeping young people in school is the only way to ensure that happens.

"We cannot assist these students if they're not in school, and I'm not just talking about Goldsboro High School -- any school," she said, which evoked applause from the audience. "There are many outside things in the community that keep them from coming to school."

Ms. Burden said if a teen is charged with a felony, whether or not he is guilty, until the matter is cleared up, he is unable to return to school.

"The best education takes place in the walls of your school, not in a program set up to just help you get by or to help you keep up. They need to be here with the resources that we have."