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Gangs fill out ranks on campus

Police Bureau seeks to identify affiliates at local high schools

Latino gang members have made appearances on Parkrose and David Douglas school district campuses in recent months looking to expand their influence and recruit new members, according to some in the Portland Police Bureau.

The head of the Police Bureau's School Police Division, Capt. Dorothy Elmore, said she has asked her officers to help update a list she keeps of students enrolled in Portland-area schools who are believed to have gang connections. She also has asked the Gang Enforcement Team to teach her officers how to legally and effectively identify those connections.

'I want to know numbers, I want to know gangs, I want to know names,' Elmore said. 'This was not high on our radar screen at the beginning of the school year. It is now.'

If she knows who's who, she said, she can better help prevent problems before they start.

Latino gangs became more of a priority for Elmore after the Nov. 30 stabbing of a 14-year-old at Mill Park Elementary School involving students from Fir Ridge High School, an alternative school affiliated with David Douglas High School. Police believe another stabbing on Southeast 104th Avenue, which occurred soon after, could be related.

'That stuff is a symptom, sure,' said Gresham police Sgt. Rich Pierce. 'I would think whether you had a stabbing or not, the recruitment going on would occur anyway.'

Lt. Eric Hendricks, in charge of the Gang Enforcement Team, said the past two years showed a 'steady increase' in Latino gang activity in Portland and eastern Multnomah County. Gang unit intelligence officer Russ Corno pegged the increase as beginning four years ago, even as Latino gang activity across Oregon was falling.

'For certain gang members,' Corno said, 'you can't say they go to school to get an education.'

Information is power

The school police and Gang Enforcement Team have partnered with a gang outreach specialist and representatives from Portland's East Precinct, Gresham and Troutdale police, and Multnomah County's Parole and Probation office to gather and share more information about gang activity.

Ron Macias, a Latino-gang specialist with the nonprofit Youth Gangs Outreach program, said his impression was that gang members were networking, not necessarily recruiting.

'Some of them are young men just getting out of jail,' he said. 'They want to catch up, get back involved or they have a vendetta they need to take care of. I see the activity, but I'm not hearing too much about recruiting.'

Parkrose High School Principal Roy Reynolds talks to Macias a few times a month and to school resource officer Tranh Nguyen of the School Police Division more regularly. He sees the colors that different gangs wear, along with the hand signals they use to identify themselves and the notes they pass, but tries to counteract gang activity in his school without a show of force.

'I am in this profession because I think education is every child's salvation,' Reynolds said. 'I try to send the message through Ron (Macias) that the gang members (enrolled in the school) are welcome here but that the gang stuff needs to stay off campus. I can't say we can keep everybody out who doesn't belong here, but we try.'

David Douglas Principal Randy Hutchinson did not return calls for comment.

Kate Desmond, program administrator for the county's Parole and Probation Gang Resource Intervention Team, did not return phone messages seeking comment on gang members released from jail.

Girls join up

Of particular interest to the cops are female gangs. Once, female gang members were thought of as property, in essence, of male gangs. Now girls are full members of their own gangs and have acquired reputations among authorities as being both valuable as information sources and vicious to their enemies.

Where male gang members typically fight to resolve an issue and the result ends the dispute whatever the outcome, female gang members hold grudges against a rival, her gang and her family, gang cops said.

And their value to police often lies in those grudges.

'If one of these girls feels betrayed or hurt, she can be a great intelligence asset,' Elmore said. 'She'll tell you a person's real name, where he sleeps, where his mama sleeps, who he hangs out with, what kind of car he drives Ñ everything. Too many times the boys only know each other by nicknames, which is of minimal help.'

The dynamic with girl gangs is different, too, because their members tend to attend more classes and stay in school longer than their male counterparts. In Oregon during the 2002-03 school year, 55.9 percent of dropouts were boys, while 44.1 percent were girls. According to the Office of Policy Research in the state Department of Education, those figures are in keeping with historical trends.

'I think more boys would drop out if they weren't drawn back to school by the girls,' Corno said. 'The girls use school for a social gathering place and recruiting network. With boys the connection to schools is much looser and usually based on a cousin or brother or other gang member in addition to girls.'

Amid the perceptions and opinions, Elmore waits for information.

'We're looking at this from elementary schools on up,' she said. 'I want my officers to know their faces, every last one of them. They have to be the experts.'