Police, courts, clergy and students agree that Chattanooga has a gang problem.
Numbers back that up -- nine of the 19 killings in Chattanooga last year were gang-related, according to police.
Solving the problem of gangs and the violence that swirls around them means getting all levels of the community involved, said participants in the U.S. Attorney's Office Gang Summit, held Wednesday at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Chattanooga Deputy Police Chief Mark Rawlston said gangs have been a problem for years in the area but just weren't discussed openly.
"Within the last six or seven years, we've acknowledged the gang problem," he said.
Representatives from Hamilton County schools, law enforcement, some clergy and government officials met in separate sessions and later mingled in groups.
Officials focused the summit on preventing gangs, starting with issues for younger students, then working with communities on recreation center programs, adult and youth mentorship, parenting classes and city building code enforcement in blighted communities.
Hamilton County District Attorney General Bill Cox pointed to the forum as a way people can connect across different areas.
"That's one of the best things that you're seeing happening here today, you're seeing the commitment of people to address a problem that affects all of us," he said.
"It's a tragic problem for those who get involved in the gang culture, who end up dead or end up in jail, basically throwing their lives away," Mr. Cox said.
He said only a small percentage of local youth is involved in gangs, but they commit a large number of crimes.
Participants watched a video featuring interviews with convicted gang members serving prison terms of 25 years and life who shared their mistakes and asked others not to follow. The footage also included high-school age students who had been in gangs but gotten out.
U.S. Attorney Russ Dedrick and others lauded the video as a tool to reach students and communities about the consequences of gang involvement.
But some students said the video had to be accompanied with consistent support, mentorship and alternatives to gangs .
Community response to gangs
* Solicit help from the elderly as mentors in community programs.
* Offer affordable activities and improve recreation center offerings.
* Develop education and guidance programs for youth and adults in affected areas.
* Engage families in more responsible behaviors and involvement with their children.
* Let youth know that police and other officials are available for help, not just criticism.
* Build community support around schools at all events -- sports, arts and others.
Source: U.S. Attorney's Office gangs summit
"You're not going to watch a 20-minute video and it change your life," said 15-year-old Ooltewah High School sophomore Morgan Davis. "It's got to be a constant nagging to get you to stop it."
Dustin Lindberg, an 18-year-old senior at Ooltewah, said harsh promises by police and adults must come with real consequences. He knows students who use or deal drugs who don't get caught during school drug searches.
"They're saying, 'If you do these things, you'll go to jail,' then we see the cops come and they don't go to jail," Mr. Lindberg said.
The students were quick to point out that there isn't a real gang problem at their school, although so-called "wannabes" emulate gang behavior but don't commit serious offenses such as gun violence.
Some schools see more gang problems than others. Hamilton County Deputy Jeremy Wright, school resource officer at the Howard School of Academics and Technology, said he sees new students already affiliated with a gang coming into high school.
He said officers talk with and watch the students identified as gang members closely.
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