Gangs of Columbia: Community efforts work to keep kids out of ga - - Columbia, South Carolina |

Gangs of Columbia: Community efforts work to keep kids out of gangs

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Temptation to join a gang lurks in most neighborhoods. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott says gangs no longer control the county, but the gangs' grasp still targets the youth.

"A lot of times people say there's no gangs in a certain area because of a lot of them don't know how to identify gangs. And when you find a basic gang class and know how to identify gangs, you start seeing the signs and symptoms in your own home," said NAGIA President Elbert Pearson.

The signs are often written on walls and backs of buildings.

Investigator Kelvin Griffin with Richland County's Gang Unit is used to painting one Columbia building. He's had youth offenders cover up markings at least three times in the last two years.

He's helping two young boys to find a better way and see their potential. The two young boys were caught painting graffiti.

Many gang investigators say always arresting is not the answer. Instead, showing youth a better way before they go to jail can sometimes cut off the criminal behavior.

"That's what I bring out of them -- the leadership capabilities that they have by building their positive self-image of what they look like, music they listen to, and things they do," said Chandra Cleveland-Jennings. "And to understand that what they do is not always right and here's the reason why."

Cleveland-Jennings is the founder of Palmetto Youth Connection. She works with girls and boys in a free four week program based out of the Richland mall.

"You don't have to be a troubled youth or youth that's trying to find their way, we deal with all kids," said Cleveland-Jennings.

Whether you're in a gang or not, there are several programs throughout Richland County that target positive behavior for youth. One example is the READY program. It gives them a hard look at what life could be like behind bars if they continue down an unproductive path.

"A lot of times it starts out with disrespect and they graduate to doing other things and they'll find themselves in a predicament where they're in one of these cells or penitentiaries," said Richland County Gang Unit Sgt. Gerald Walls.

In the READY program, youth spend the night exercising.

"No matter how in shape they are, the exercises we have them do is designed to make them feel the pain the parents feel when they decide to do the wrong thing," said Walls.

And the kids are mentored.

"Everyone has done something wrong in life, and we show them you can overcome that if you decide you'd like to do the right thing," said Walls.

Attitudes, bad behavior, getting involved in gangs -- deputies say often it's because the kids are looking for attention, looking for love and wanting to belong.

"Some kids don't get love or children get love from their parents and the gang is there to provide everything they need," said Pearson.

Gangs come in a variety of forms and there is not one definition.

"You can't say it's just African-American kids, it's Hispanic kids, it's just white kids, it's just Asian kids -- it's all of them. All of them have that temptation to get into a gang," said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.

And the common signifiers, bandanas, beads, tattoos, brands, sports logos colors, can end up being stereotypes that law enforcement have to be careful of.

"We talk to our community and advise them don't just look at one thing and automatically assume this person is a gang member," Staff Sgt. Vince Goggins.

School resource officers also educate students in the classroom about gangs, but they also show kids the meaning of positive role models and the benefits of doing the right thing.

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