Gang violence tears families apart and ends lives, but by educating parents, government officials hope to hit gangs at their source, cutting off their access to potential new recruits.
In a series of workshops this month in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami
-Dade counties, parents will have the chance to learn the meanings of gang graffiti, clothing color combinations and other gang symbols, according to Wayne Rawlins, a consultant specializing in gang activity who will be speaking at the workshops titled "Keeping Your Kids Safe."
Most parents "don't have a clue" when their children are involved in gang activity, said Rawlins.
Over the summer, without school to occupy their time, children are at risk for turning to gang activity, workshop organizers said.
"Summertime is a scary time if your kids are not in a structured, safe environment," said Rosalind Murray, criminal justice program development specialist with Palm Beach County
Weed and Seed, a Justice Department neighborhood initiative. "In summertime, a lot of activity is unsupervised."
South Florida has about 19,685 gang members in 457 gangs, according to a February report by a statewide gang-reduction taskforce.
Many parents fail to notice warning signs of gang activity, local law enforcement officers said.
"Parents can do a lot more than they think," Palm Beach County
Sheriff's Lt. Mike Wallace said. "Most parents are oblivious."
Wallace, a parent of four, said he monitors his children's behavior to make sure he knows what activities they are involved in.
"I trust my kids, but I also verify. I go in my kids' rooms and I look for stuff," he said.
Teenagers often turn to gangs to replace their biological families, said Lt. Anthony DeMarco of the Broward Sheriff's Office Youth Intervention and Enforcement Division.
"The best thing I can tell parents is to be engaged in their child's lives," he said.
Educating parents can help a community's gang-prevention efforts, criminology experts said.
"Any sort of prevention efforts in terms of gang membership have to multifaceted," said Marvin Krohn, a University of Florida
criminology and law professor.
Once parents realize their child has joined a gang, it is often too late to take action, Krohn said.
"My guess is for most kids you have lost that battle [once they join], but on the other hand, for a significant minority of kids, you can intervene," he said.
Children as young as 11 can be attracted to gangs; many join at 14 or 15, he said.
Many of the warning signs of gang activity are the same as for other criminal behavior, said Carter Hay, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University
Causing trouble in school, getting into fights and associating with children involved in criminal behavior all are warning signs for gang activity, Hay said.
Eric P. Newcomer can be reached at enewcomer@SunSentinel.com