Police hope education can head off gang problems

MONMOUTH/INDEPENDENCE -- Tino Banuelos remembers gang violence as an unfortunate, but all too real, part of life in Independence and Central High School during the early 1990s.

Brawls in the hallways between groups identifying themselves as gang members were a regular occurrence. Kids often carried weapons.

"Sadly, I can tell you that some of the classmates that should have graduated with me are in prison at the moment because of gangs," Banuelos said. "Or they're no longer alive."

Today, Banuelos is an officer for the Independence Police Department, charged with investigating and resolving criminal matters involving students within Central School District.

After a noticeable decrease in gang-related incidents in schools during the past few years, Banuelos says there has been a quiet, but steady, resurgence in gang activity.

"It's pretty tame compared to the way it used to be," he said. "But that's not to say we shouldn't be concerned.

"That climate is coming back. We're seeing more intimidation by numbers, more threats, more posturing," Banuelos said.

"With the fighting, people aren't only threatening each other but bystanders as well."

In response to the problem, Independence police and the Polk County Juvenile Department will introduce a gang intervention program this fall. They hope it will help quash a growing gang presence in the district.

The program, Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT), will be worked into the school curriculum for seventh graders at Talmadge Middle School.

"What we'd like to do is give them the tools to make better life decisions," said Jaime Cantu, a Polk County juvenile probation officer.

Banuelos and Cantu received certification to administer GREAT and will teach a one-hour course once a week for three months.

The program is funded through a $15,000 grant from the Oregon Youth Authority, which allocated $2 million to nine Oregon counties for intervention efforts in response to rising concerns about gangs in communities.

GREAT originated with the federal government and the Phoenix Police Department during the early 1990s. It consists of lessons designed to teach students the skills they need to avoid gang pressure and youth violence.

This includes giving an overview of the relationship between gangs, crime and drugs. It also will focus on decision making, conflict resolution, anger management and effective communication.

It's communication, Banuelos says, that often proves to the source of incidents on his beat.

"Usually people hear rumors, that somebody is saying something about them, they take it as a slight without hearing the straight story," he says. "That's behind the majority of our fights."

Banuelos said the definition of what constitutes a gang is looser in Independence than in bigger cities. Most groups here try to model themselves after more recognizable gangs.

Neither the county juvenile department nor Independence police track crimes by gang involvement.

Determining whether or not an incident is gang related is dependent on an offender's willingness to volunteer information, said Trish Reding, juvenile department manager.

Still, Banuelos said more kids are adopting gang fashion. There also an increasing number of complaints about graffiti and tagging in the city.

Banuelos says there will be some young people who are set in their ways and may dismiss the program outright.

But "over time, I'm hopeful that we can create an environment where being part of a gang isn't cool.

"It might take a few years to see the fruits of that labor, but I believe this is definitely worthwhile," he said.

For more information on GREAT: Officer Tino Banuelos at 503-838-1214.


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