New County Effort Aims To Keep Students from Joining Gangs

Average age of gang recruitment is 13 or 14 years old, authorities say


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State's Attorney John McCarthy speaks in the Montgomery County Circuit Court in Rockville, surrounded by County Council members and school and law enforcement leaders.

Joe Zimmermann

As Montgomery County wrestles with a rise in gang violence, officials are looking to do more to stop young teens from joining gangs.

A new memorandum signed Tuesday outlines cooperation between schools and law enforcement in responding to and exchanging information about criminal incidents at schools.

“If we need to get information to a school security officer or principal that makes their place safer and makes the kids in there [safer], we want to share that information,” State’s Attorney John McCarthy said in an interview last month. “And likewise, if they have information about someone who’s destabilizing their school and they think it’s gang-related activity, whether it’s hazing or recruitment activity going on at their schools, we’d like to know about that.”

The memorandum establishes an improved school resource officer program, details law enforcement response to different types of incidents involving schools and formalizes protocol for sharing information.

Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith said after a press conference Tuesday that school officials would have to decide on a case-by-case basis about what information can be shared, but it could sometimes involve individual students or suspected gang activity at schools.

Smith said schools focus on activities and involvement to keep kids out of gangs.

“We think the best way to keep students is to keep them focused on more positive experiences, both during the school day and in after-school programs, sports and music and drama and community groups,” he said, “so that their focus is on what’s positive, as opposed to moving toward something that could be really bad for them.”

McCarthy said outreach is critical, especially at an early age—given that the average age of gang recruitment is 13 or 14.

“We probably have got to do our outreach at the middle school level,” he said. “By the time they’ve got to high school, they’ve probably already made the decision.”

The memorandum comes at a time of increased focus on gangs and gang violence in the county. There have been 20 gang-related homicides in the county in the past two years, according to McCarthy, including two men found dead in local parks last month.

A federal case against eight suspected MS-13 members was announced last week, linking them to homicides in Maryland and Virginia and other crimes in Montgomery County.

Montgomery County residents have been charged in two suspected MS-13-related murders in Frederick and Anne Arundel counties.

MS-13 is an international gang with a growing presence in the area. Its membership is primarily made up of immigrants from El Salvador.

At the press conference Tuesday, County Council President Roger Berliner said he was committed to doing “whatever it takes to put an end to MS-13 in our county.”

“These criminals commit acts of unspeakable violence, they prey on our youth, they have caused immeasureable pain and suffering for too many who have come to our community for the chance of a better life.”

On Oct. 3, the County Council voted unanimously to approve $840,000 in supplemental funding for the police department and the State's Attorney's Office to hire more employees dedicated to investigating gangs.

The gang violence issue, particularly that of MS-13, is an ongoing political subject in the region. In the Virginia gubernatorial race, Republican candidate Ed Gillespie has run hundreds of television ads accusing his opponent, Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, of supporting a policy that increased the threat of MS-13.

In Montgomery County on Monday, the four Democratic candidates running for county executive in 2018 all said the county should take a two-pronged approach in dealing with violent gangs. The approach includes providing prosecutors and police with resources to target high-level gang members, as well as programs to address the social issues that lead children to join local gangs.

Marc Elrich, the chair of the County Council’s public safety committee, who is running for county executive, said Monday that the county’s State’s Attorney’s Office and police were provided the additional funds to help them arrest and prosecute gang leaders.

“Gang violence is a problem,” Elrich said. “It would be wrong to say it isn’t a problem.”

He said previously that the county’s public safety efforts to crack down on gang leaders were dependent on federal law enforcement agencies.

“Frankly, the other agencies are stretched all around the country,” Elrich said. “We cannot be dependent on other people providing the kinds of supplements we need.”

Andrew Metcalf contributed to this report.

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