Sept. 3—Law enforcement officials have long said gangs are present in every high school in Cobb County.
What’s new, according to Cobb County District Attorney Flynn Broady, is a trend of younger and younger children — kids as young as 10 or 11 — being sought out for gang activity.
“We’re finding out now, they’re beginning to start recruiting earlier and earlier at the elementary school level,” Broady told the MDJ. “So if we don’t get a hold on it now, by the time they get to high school it will be 10 times worse than what it is right now.”
Broady, whose office prosecutes cases which rise to the level of a criminal offense in Cobb’s juvenile court, said the problem is at least partially related to fallout from the pandemic.
“Seeing the trauma in the home from their parents because of COVID issues, that has definitely increased the availability or acceptability for kids to join gangs, because the things that they need from home they’re not getting. So they look for it elsewhere, and gangs are usually trying to fill that void for them,” he added.
Broady said while some of the incidents have spilled out into violent crime, “the biggest thing that we’re seeing is the fighting in schools and the threats that kids are making against one another.”
Being juvenile cases, Broady said he cannot discuss specific cases in detail, and declined to identify which schools in Cobb are seeing the problems he outlined.
But, he added, “We had a case, where we have it on audio what was being said. And in the middle of this audio — we believe it was a phone conversation — you’re hearing an adult laughing. And to think that an adult is sitting here listening to a 10- or 11-year-old talk the way that child was talking, and allowing it to be done, really disturbs us.”
But it can become difficult for schools or prosecutors to parse the difference between a lunchroom brawl and a true gang fight, according to Cobb Circuit Defender Scott Halperin, who worked for several years in juvenile court representing children and their families.
“Two kids could get in a fight and be told afterwards that it was gang-related, or two gangs could show up, planning on starting a fight,” said Halperin. “The law doesn’t really make a distinction between those two things.”
The same lack of distinction applies to Georgia’s criminal gang statutes, he added.
“There’s only one law,” said Halperin, that doesn’t distinguish between a full-fledged gang member and a teenager who may only be marginally associated with criminal enterprises.
But Halperin argued an adult — or even older teen — gang member is fundamentally different from a child.
“The role that the gang plays in a little kid’s life is always going to be aspirational. The most you’ll ever be is a little kid who’s being misguided around by older gang members. And often, I think that might not even be the case. They just sort of choose to identify as such,” Halperin added. “I think it’s very dangerous for children to get the message that being in a gang is necessary, or even cool. I think they’re getting both of those messages. I don’t know exactly where they’re getting it, but I think that they are,” he said. “But in the case of a little kid — someone under 13, let’s say … they’re not really members of a gang. They just aren’t.”
State Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, argued if there’s still a growing gang problem, it demonstrates the state’s toughened stance in recent years isn’t getting results.
“All this emphasis on gang activity, all this emphasis on labeling people as gang members, all this emphasis on the prosecutorial side of it, doesn’t seem to be working,” said Wilkerson. “Then you’ve got to pause and say, wait a second, are we doing the right thing? … By the time it gets to the DA it’s too late. By the time it gets to the DA, that means you’ ve already allowed a problem to fester.”
Wilkerson said the fear of gangs has been, and could be again, used to enlist support for more draconian school policing policies. If Broady wants to avoid that, Wilkerson added, he should name the schools where the problem exists.
“If he’s got an issue, he’s got to be able to communicate it to the leaders of those communities at different levels,” Wilkerson said.
While Broady characterized the problem as a growing one, school officials in Marietta and Cobb, meanwhile, said they haven’t yet heard reports of younger kids being recruited into street gangs.
“If there’s even one child involved in gang-related activity, we have a problem,” said Grant Rivera, superintendent of Marietta City Schools, but “I haven’t had any reports of gang-related activity in elementary school.”
Rivera added that as a former high school principal, he “would not have been surprised by kids starting to demonstrate gang-related behavior in middle school.”
Brittney Bridges, the district’s executive director of innovative practices, said the district has not observed any instances of elementary school-aged kids getting drawn into gang activity.
“Fighting, battery and gang activity are coded separately, but when an investigation has indicated that fighting or battery resulted due to gang activity both are reported. The trends over the last few years do not indicate that fighting in schools is a manifestation of gang activity ,” Bridges said in an email.
Cobb Board of Education Chairman David Chastain did not respond to requests for comment for this story and a request to interview Cobb Schools Superintendent Chris Ragsdale was not granted.
Cobb school board member Leroy “Tre” Hutchins said the DA’s warning was the first he’d heard of the alleged problem.
“That’s not a topic of conversation, meaning it hasn’t risen to any level of concern where there needs to be some community intervention. If it’s happening, and it may be happening, we may need some training on how to even acknowledge it or even respond, because I’m not sure that that’s something we are seeing,” Hutchins said.
That’s one of the prescriptions Broady suggested.
“Cobb County schools, they have a great program where they do gang awareness instruction for their principals,” Broady said. “One of the things that we want to do though, is get that all the way down to the teacher administration level, so that they can see those same things that are being taught to the principals, and even reach out to the parents and get them on board.”
Randy Scamihorn, a Cobb school board member and former educator, said, “I have not (heard of it) at the board level … I’ve only been out of the classroom, out of the school, for about 10 years now , and I didn’t see a big problem with that at the younger level.
“I don’t see it being any greater in Cobb County than it has been throughout history, and the task of making sure it stays that way is to stay vigilant, and stop it whenever there is evidence that somebody is trying something new to get the younger (kids) involved. Stop it early. Otherwise it just metastasizes,” Scamihorn added.