Bullies And Gangs: Are They Cannon County Concerns?

KEVIN HALPERN, Courier Co-Editor

Concern has been raised this week by family, friends and citizens of Cannon County, speculating the death of a Cannon County youth may in some way be related to bullying and youth violence.

Youth bullying has also been a national news topic in recent weeks, associated with the suicides of gay teens.

This past April, Cannon County First District Constable Jim Gibbs appeared before the Cannon County School Board to propose an agreement between the school district and the constable’s office to bring violence resistance education and training to Cannon County elementary schools.

The program, Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) is sponsored by the Department of Justice and calls upon experienced law enforcement officers with classroom teaching experience to teach children how to respond to threatening situations, and how to resist risky behaviors and relationships such as gang involvement.

Gibbs explained that G.R.E.A.T. is an educational process starting at a young age that not only teaches positive behavior in children, but creates a trust in the law enforcement officer in uniform.

The school board decided at the time not to take Gibbs up on his offer.

The Cannon Courier contacted Constable Gibbs to obtain his perspective on possible bullying and gang activities in Cannon County. Questions and his answers follow:

 Do you think bullying, possibly related to gang activity, could be associated with Brian Kite's death?

 Actually I have no idea. I have read online comments suggesting that he was a victim of bullying. At this very moment, I'm not sure anyone knows what or who contributed to the unfortunate loss of Brian's young life. I trust both Sheriff Young, and Dr. Reuhland to investigate his death and let the community know the results of their investigation as quickly as possible.

Is bullying one of the tactics or trademarks of gang members?

Bullying can be gang related as kids will join gangs for protection from bullies. Gangs will often use bullying as an intimating means to recruit members, but to also define and defend their territory. Gang related graffiti is usually an intimating message. Graffiti is the gang message board which also usually defines the gang’s territory and is used to disrespect rival gangs. --- Gang related or not, bullying in itself, especially in a small community as Cannon County can be devastating to the young victims that just have no place to turn and get help.

Have you noticed a recent increase is gang-related activity in Cannon County?

There have been recent reports of graffiti in Cannon County. Generally, gang graffiti is going to be from a gang trying to claim territory, It's purpose is to warn everybody to stay out. Not all graffiti is gang related, but it needs to documented, record and analyzed by law enforcement.

The TBI has listed at least one gang as being in Cannon County, the Vice Lords which is an older gang that originated in the Chicago area that is typically African-American. However, It is important to think outside the stereotype gang member image. Don't be lulled into thinking all gang members are black or Hispanic. Outlaw motorcycle gangs are gangs, neo-Nazis, religious fanatic groups and the KKK are all also gangs that recruit members.

Not long ago, a Cannon County sheriff's investigator warned the Cannon County Commissioners of gang related issues in the county. At the time, his focus was on gangs from other areas victimizing local residents.

It's no secret that gang activity exists in Murfreesboro and Rutherford County, McMinnville and Warren County, Manchester and Coffee County

It is estimate that 400 to 500 youth in Rutherford County are connected to gangs, a sizable number in a growing community of that size.

Metro Police have identified 5,000 gang members in Davidson County.

Nearly 800,000 gang members and 27,000 gangs operate across the 50 states, a Justice Department survey shows. Some estimates have the figure at 2 million gang members.

But more importantly, those are numbers that will continue to grow if a more comprehensive approach is not embraced to not only deter our young people from joining gangs through stiff punishment of offenders, but to also provide adequate opportunities for at-risk youth to choose a different path that leads to becoming productive members of society.

What are some of the illegal activities gangs generally engage in?

When a gang comes in, generally crime goes up. That's why when anybody sees graffiti they should alert law enforcement. Properly trained, law enforcement can interpret the graffiti and identify any new gang activity. Illegal activity can include drug trafficking, burglary, auto and farm machinery theft, dealing in stolen guns and illegal weapons. Actually, anything that will produce income even prostitution can be found as a gang activity. Most gangs are just illegal business operations being run by some real nasty people.

Do you think school officials are doing enough to protect students from bullying and gang violence?

I do not.

The School board claims they are using a PBS or PBIS program (Positive Behavioral Interventions & Support). But, each school has to established its own methods and rewards for positive behavior. Furthermore, classroom behavior seems to be the focus of the program. While negative behavior is addressed, I don't see bullying directly addressed and nothing related to avoiding gang activity.

MTEC sponsored a bullying program at Short Mountain Elementary which was entertaining and funny for the kids. I question the long term value and it did not address gangs.

Last spring, The School Board rejected a FREE offer to bring a nationally recognized program called Gang Resistance Education And Training (G.R.E.A.T.) to Cannon County. The program is a school-based, law enforcement officer-instructed classroom curriculum. The program's primary objective is prevention and is intended as an immunization against delinquency, youth violence, and gang membership. G.R.E.A.T. lessons focus on providing life skills to students to help them avoid delinquent behavior and violence to solve problems. The program also addresses bullying.

What more should local law enforcement and school officials do the address the problem of bullying and gangs?

Follow the lead of our neighbors. Just last week the Murfreesboro Police announced they are going to implement the same program reject by the Cannon County School Board.

Assistant Police Chief Roy Fields reported they're partnering with the Community Anti-drug Coalition of Rutherford County (CADCOR) to implement the G.R.E.A.T. program or Gang Resistance Education and Training in schools in Murfreesboro.

Murfreesboro Police Major Clyde Adkisson says the program will bring more awareness to young people about gangs and how they're impacting our community. Cannon County had an opportunity to be ahead of the curve with this same program, and the school board failed the community.

Fields and Adkisson say this is the start of the plan and they hope future grants will enable them to expand the program to other grades and schools. The grant has been accepted and they hope to begin the program during this semester.

What can the community and parents do to protect themselves and children from bullies and gangs?

Love and respect your children. In many cases gangs are an attractive alternative to families. The gang becomes their family. Don't let it happen, and don't assume that it is going to happen elsewhere. Learn what gangs are really about and educate and defend your children from the enticements of gangs.

What can parents and school officials do to keep children from becoming associated with gangs?

Gangs are businesses built around a formidable drug economy. They realize that youths are a valuable resource, and they are serving an unmet economic need in low-income communities. Businesses, schools, nonprofit organizations and government should come together to create a viable economic strategy to employ youths, meet financial need and realize their potential as contributors to our economy.

In addition to economic underinvestment, we have underinvested emotionally in many of our youths. They lack the communities and relationships that bring value and attachment to life. In our program, we watch youths transform as they receive attention, shape their identity and voice, find community and realize a pathway toward a desirable future. We need to prioritize fostering educational and youth communities that serve social-emotional needs and engage each young person as an individual with remarkable potential.