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Gangs in Schools Targeted

State Capital Bureau

February 16, 1995

JEFFERSON CITY _ Cigarette butts are not the only evidence of crimes left in school bathrooms anymore.

Several weeks ago, a 15-year-old student was beaten to death in the bathroom of her St. Louis County school.

The alleged murderer was cited by a St. Louis police officer to a House committee as the kind of violence many schools now face.

Fear of more violence spurred a group of legislators to sponsor a bill that would establish an education program dealing with gangs.

The optional program would inform kindergarten through twelfth-grade students of the negative societal and personal consequences of gang membership and gang activities.

Other states have developed similar programs, said Rep. Dana Murray, D-St. Louis, one of the sponsors of the bill.

"We can try to pull it all together into the best program," Murray said.

Gang activities touch every socio-economic group, said Tony Coleman, an officer in the St. Louis County Police Department chief's office. He warned legislators that gang-related incidents are even happening in Missouri's smallest towns.

Missouri's rate of violent crimes is slightly higher than the national average. For every 100,000 people, the 1992 national average is 9.3 violent crimes reported. Missouri's average is 10.5, according to Missouri's Highway Patrol statistics.

"Missouri is one of the most populous states, so we expect it to be closer to the average or a little above it," said Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Clarence Greeno.

St. Louis has more murders per capita than New York City, Coleman said.

"The problem we're seeing now is second-generation gang members," Coleman said. "We're seeing the same mentality in their kids. The only way to give them a chance is through education."

Coleman is writing a book about how kids become involved with gangs. He said that we often think there are no real gangs in Missouri, only kids who want to act like they are members. He calls these children "wannabes." Coleman also said people are too quick to believe that violent, gang-like behavior in children is just a stage they will grow out of.

"Kids don't grow out of gangs, they grow into gangs," he said.

Unless a parent, the school, the church or someone else takes an interest in violent children or a traumatic situation occurs, Coleman said these kids will become members.

"They won't be a wannabe, but a will-be," he said.

Gangs have grown in popularity so much that police now are seeing some members who are "above the law" like the legendary Chicago organized-crime gangs, Coleman said. These people are wealthy and are shielded by their followers.

Rep. John Loudon, R-St. Louis County, questioned Coleman about his assertion that children join gangs because they know no other way of life.

"Is the issue not more belonging than conflict resolution?"

Coleman agreed that wanting to belong is also a factor, which is why the program must be comprehensive. He said the schools must be the one to show kids other groups to belong to.

"It needs to include everything known to stop gangs," Coleman said.

Several representatives suggested that the program be made available to every private school as well as every public school.

The bill's proposed program would encompass all violent, gang-like behavior in addition to teaching the consequences of membership in organized gangs. A lobbyist for the Missouri State Teacher's Association said that the program would also help deal with ordinary discipline problems.