2012-03-08 / Local & State

Pa. Teachers Meet To Try To Curb Gang Influence

BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) – Teachers in eastern Pennsylvania trying to come up with ways to curb the influence of gangs in schools in the commonwealth have been told that the problem is growing but can be handled.

More than 50 teachers and guidance counselors from nearly a dozen school districts met at Broughal Middle School on Saturday for a half-day workshop billed as a first step to develop a uniform program for districts across the state.

Simon Boddie said that on his first day as a school police officer in 2003, three students beat up a boy in a stairwell, an attack ordered by a 12-year-old gang leader.

“I was no babe in the woods. I knew we had gangs in Bethlehem,” Boddie said. “But 10- and 12-year-old gang leaders ordering beatdowns? That was an eyeopening.”

He said during his 14 years as a Bethlehem police officer, he's seen more and more outof state gang members establishing roots in the city.

“They're here,” he said. “I think to say otherwise you'd be burying your head in the sand ... Is it out of control? No. From what we've seen, it is growing but it's growing everywhere.”

The workshop was held by the Bethlehem Education Association and also featured presentations by the Pennsylvania Eastern Region Anti-Gang Coalition and others.

Participants were told that positive role models, encouragement and after school activities can keep young people from turning to a gang in search of acceptance, status and safety.

Boddie and fellow officer Samuel Del Rosario stressed the importance of parents, neighbors, and teachers getting involved in the lives of children and watching for signs of gang involvement, which include sudden changes in attitude or grades; changes in appearance, such as wearing the same color clothes or shaved eyebrows; and the use of hand signals.

“Get the kid talking, get them to trust you,” Boddie said. “Have them buy into what you’re trying to tell them. Is it easy? No. Is it going to work all the time? No. Does it work? Yes.”

Police said more than 20 gangs have been identified in the Lehigh Valley and they can be found in almost every school. Del Rosario some of that was due to the economics of the drug trade.

“A gram of cocaine can be sold for $38 in New York, but it brings $60 here,” he said. “If you are a drug dealer, it profits you to move to Easton or Allentown.”

Northampton County Judge Stephen Baratta said he and his wife sent their son to Bethlehem Catholic High School in hopes of insulating him from gang activity. But when he presided over a 2007 triple murder in Easton that authorities stemmed from a gang dispute, he found out that one of the victims often hung out at the school.

“I turned to my wife and said We thought he was safe.’ This problem is everywhere,” he said.

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