Elementary school isn't just a place to learn readin', writin' and 'rithmetic.
For a few, it's also a place to learn the ABCs of gangbanging.
"It's mostly middle school where it starts," said Sgt. Cindy McCarter with the Hesperia Unified school police. "We've seen as young as fourth or fifth (grade). ... They're following the lead of an older sibling."
The kids don't typically call themselves members of a gang, she said, but are rather members of "dance," "tagging" or "party" crews and their gang activities are typically restricted to graffiti — often via a "slap tag" pre-drawn onto a sticker the kid can quickly apply — or dancing at parties to help publicize their affiliated gang.
School resource officers for Victorville schools said most of the gang members they encounter in middle or elementary schools are part of crews and not full-fledged gangs, according to Karen Hunt, spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Victorville station.
"If you talk to them, they don't know anything about (actual gang life)," McCarter said. "It's kind of like the gateway to a gang. Some will follow (that path) and some will fall out."
McCarter stressed that these young gangbangers typically don't pose an immediate threat to their classmates.
"There could be isolated incidents ... but at the elementary age, we just don't see" dangerous gang activity. And the pre-teen gang activity appears to be on the decline in the current school year, she said.
But there are those children who are born into generational gangs where several family members are part of the same criminal organization. Many children of gang members don't need to be initiated into a gang. According to experts, it is their birthright.
"It's not uncommon to see fathers, mothers, uncles and kids in the same gang," said Deputy Bryan Roper, a member of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's High Desert Regional SMASH Gang Team, in a recent interview.
According to expert Hunter "Gator" Glass, children of gang members are brought up in the thug lifestyle.
"The cops are the enemy and other gang members are the heroes. In many gangs, the leaders are no longer people. They are elevated to the level of kings," Glass said.
HUSD administrators snap pictures of graffiti scrawled by tagging crews on campus, which the school police department compiles and uses to monitor gang activity. That information can be shared with SMASH Gang teams as well.
In one case, members of the Hesperia stations Tagging Enforcement Team confronted a tagger who was only 9 years old. Deputy Scott Nobles said his handcuffs wouldn't fit the child's tiny wrists.
Authorities warn parents to watch out for signs their child may be falling into crews that can then develop into gangs.
For those children in generational gangs, experts say it's an issue that must be handled by treating the entire family.
"It's not about dropping the kids off and saying, 'Fix them,' " said Rick Zamorano, a former gang member who, through his ministry, reaches out to at-risk parents and families. "(Parents) have to know they have a hand in the kind of child they have. No child is born bad. Parents have to take responsibility."
Beau Yarbrough may be reached at (760) 956-7108 or at beau@HesperiaStar.com.
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