Grappling with gangs

Jun. 28, 2014 @ 05:19 PM

It has been almost a decade since a pair of controversial documentaries – the title of one, “Welcome to Durham” has become an ironic catchphrase in the Bull City --- captured national attention for Durham’s gang activity.

In the years since, gang activity and our attention to it have ebbed and flowed, with continuing debate over its prevalence, whether authorities downplayed or exaggerated it, over whether public perception, especially outside the city, magnified it beyond reality.

Now, the latest official report on the issue holds cause for some optimism – and a healthy dose of concern.

The good news, by all accounts, is that gang involvement in criminal activity is probably lower than perceived.  The assessment by the Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center concluded that less than 5 percent of reported crimes here involved a gang member.

Officials rightly welcomed that finding.  “We believe that is a pretty low percentage,” Jim Stuitt, the resource center’s gang reduction strategy manager, told The Herald-Sun’s Lauren Horsch.  City Manager Tom Bonfield offered a similar assessment. “To me, the good news in the report is the small percentage of crime that is committed” by gangs, he said.

There is a bit of “it could be worse” to those responses, but generally the numbers are more encouraging than discouraging.

Particularly troubling, though, were some findings about Durham Public Schools where, the assessment noted, many students “have a disproportionate number of risk factors associated with gang involvement, such as living below the poverty level or living in a single-parent household.”

Assessment data show that:

-- While graduation rates are improving, ours “lag behind the state rate and the rates of similar counties.”

-- Two DPS middle schools and five high schools rank in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide in attendance. “Truancy remains an issue district-wide,” the report notes tersely.

-- School resource officers in middle schools and high schools may maintain a safer environment, but “their presence appears to increase the risk of arrests and court referrals for minor misconduct.” That, of course, both discourages attendance and funnels teens into the justice system, eroding their employment prospects.

While those are unsettling findings, it is not as if nothing is being done to address the issue. The school system has aggressively pursued strategies to keep students in school and increase graduation rates, and has explored several alternatives short of suspension to discipline students for infractions.

East Durham Children’s Initiative is trying intensive, wrap-around efforts to boost school performance and short-circuit the poverty cycle in a targeted area. MDC, the progressive action/think tank, has spotlighted our community’s excessive number of “disconnected youth,” and is, with allies such as Victor Dzau, chancellor of health affairs at Duke and head of the Duke Health System, spearheading efforts to reconnect them.

It is not as if this community’s leadership is in denial about the risks and realities of gang activity. But the latest gang assessment reminds us of the urgency and magnitude of the task to combat it.