Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.
William still remembers the day last April when he was violently assaulted by a group of students in the second-floor bathroom of Silver Spring International Middle School. One student grabbed him by the arms while four or five others pummeled him with blows. Half a minute later, they stopped. William emerged bruised and battered—and satisfied, for he had passed the test. He was now a member of the gang.
William, a freshman at Blair, says that his gang includes over 30 Blair students, with other members hailing from as far away as Washington, D.C., for a total of approximately 60 people.
Nationally, the youth gang problem is "widespread and substantial" with over 840,500 gang members active in 1999, according to the most recent National Youth Gang Survey.
At Blair, meanwhile, a recent increase in gang-related incidents has brought gang activity back into prominence after a long period of dormancy during much of the 1990s. In January, 38 students were suspended for their involvement in a series of altercations outside of school that Blair Principal Phillip Gainous termed a "gang incident." Two years ago, two freshmen were expelled after their participation in a possible gang initiation. Most recently, on a weekend in February, a gang-involved senior allegedly stabbed someone off of school grounds.
Gainous says that he feels "apprehension" that Blair could return to a level of gang-related tension not seen since the mid 1980s, and in order to prevent such a recurrence, he has taken "swift" action against those students involved. The 38 suspensions were the most for one single incident in recent Blair history, and the alleged stabber was recommended for expulsion.
Nevertheless, according to William, who was one of the students suspended for the January fights, gang activity persists.
Quantifying gang activity is difficult, as definitions vary widely and activities can go unreported to the police. Officially, police define a gang as a group of three or more people who have a common identification and whose members engage in criminal street activity. Officer Paul Liquorie, the third district gang coordinator with the Montgomery County Department of Police, points out that there are many popular misconceptions about gangs, saying that students often claim membership when their "gang" does not actually meet the police definition.
Still, William's gang is one of the 102 identified by the Department of Police as being active in the county. "I would classify them as a gang," Liquorie says, adding that like most gangs in the county, William's is not "well-established" in the Hollywood Bloods-and-Crips sense of the word. "The gangs in the Blair area tend to be small groups who tend to be neighborhood-based. Membership doesn't tend to be widespread—you don't have members nationwide," says Liquorie.
For the approximately 18 months that Liquorie has held the position of gang coordinator, he says that gang activity in the area has remained fairly constant. As far as gang activities are concerned, the third district—covering most of Silver Spring—ranks fourth-lowest out of the five areas in the county for which statistics are compiled. The district with the highest rate of incidence is the fourth, which covers Wheaton, Northern Silver Spring, Olney, Aspen Hill and eastern Rockville.
Liquorie calls gang activity a "concern rather than an epidemic," adding that the community and the Montgomery County Department of Police need to stay vigilant. "There is always a potential for [gang activity] to grow," he says.
Assistant Principal Linda Wolf attributes the recent run of incidents to increases in gang activities in the community "spilling over" into school.
Liquorie agrees, saying, "If there are gang members in the school, then there are gang members in the community."
Police say that there are many attractors that draw students to gangs, including peer pressure and possibilities for excitement, status, protection and attention.
William joined his gang mostly because many of his friends were in it. "It's tight. I like hanging with them every day after school," he says.
Before he could join, William had to pass an initiation designed to prove his toughness. "[Gang members] usually jump you. If you can stand it, you're in. If you can't take all the hits, you're not in," he explains.
Most of the time, members of William's gang go to a park and "just chill." However, he says that they have also engaged in crime, such as graffiti, which according to police statistics is the most common of all gang activities in Montgomery County.
William says that some members of his gang may have been involved in the recent tagging of one of Blair's walls near the staff parking lot. Police are still investigating whether the incident is gang-related. Assistant Principal Linda Wolf says that Blair has experienced an increase in graffiti recently, which she thinks could be indicative of an increase in gang activity.
In addition to drawing graffiti, William and Juan—a fellow freshman who has been in the same gang since sixth grade—say that they have trafficked drugs. "That's how we make our money. In the winter, we sell a lot: ecstasy, weed, cigarettes, black blunts, everything," Juan says. One of their gang members grows marijuana in his backyard.
William says that they use the money they earn—"we make like a hundred dollars a day"—to buy alcohol.
And then there are the fights.
I'll meet you at Sunshine
The largest of the January fights for which 38 students were suspended occurred behind the Long Branch Community Center on the afternoon of Jan 9. Administrators and students estimate that over 100 people were on the scene, while police have placed the number at 40 to 50. The fights were not between two organized gangs but did involve some gang members.
About 20 yards away from Long Branch and four blocks away from Eastern Middle School, at the intersection of University Avenue and East Wayne Street, is East Wayne Park—or, as it is better known on the street, "Sunshine Park."
According to William and Juan, fights break out at Sunshine Park almost every week. Although these fights—usually involving one-on-one or two-on-two confrontations—are not as large-scale as the January fights, they do involve weapons. "At all the fights there's going to be weapons—bottles, brass knuckles, sticks," Juan says.
Liquorie, however, says that the police department has had no reports of these fights, although he adds that small fights could go unreported. He also cautions that students often overstate the extent of their gang activities. "There's going to be some exaggeration," he says.
Not far from Sunshine, a former Blair freshman was stabbed in September 1999 in a gang-related incident. The victim did not suffer life-threatening injuries and received treatment at a local hospital, according to a November 1999 Silver Chips article.
Back in the mid-1980s, Blair's gang problem was serious. "We'd have kids getting jumped by a gang in the hall, in the cafeteria, after school—you name it, it was happening," Gainous says. "At one point we had gangs from Virginia coming up here to challenge Montgomery County gangs."
The situation was, says Gainous, a distraction to the learning environment. "You can't function in a school like that," he says.
Due to the intervention of the police, community, students and administration, Blair was able to achieve a resolution to its gang problem by the end of the 1980s.
Now, Gainous is moving to ensure that gangs do not resurface in school by reacting strongly to incidents. "Don't bring this stuff to school, because if you do, you won't be a part of the school community. We'll get rid of [these students], whether through expulsion or withdrawal, " he says. "It's just too dangerous."
As an added preventative measure, Liquorie says that the Department of Police is planning to hold a workshop for some of the students involved in the January fights. The workshop, which will be aimed at teaching conflict resolution strategies and preventing violence, is tentatively scheduled for later this month.
Kang-Xing Jin. Kang-Xing ("Mr. K") Jin is a senior in the Blair magnet program. His first name is pronounced exactly like it is spelled--"consin," as in the last two syllables of Wisconsin, where he was born. This year, he is co-managing news editor of Chips. Besides journalism, ... More »