SANDY — You can't stop what you don't know.
That was the theme of Wednesday's keynote address that kicked off the 23rd annual Utah Gang Conference. The conference attracts hundreds of officers and prosecutors as well as educators, community leaders and community activists to learn about the latest trends in gang activity and to get all entities working on the same page to help solve the gang problem.
As in past conferences, a lot of the talk Wednesday was about how to keep at-risk youths out of gangs and how to detect possible problems. In his keynote speech, veteran Idaho police officer Jermaine Galloway referred to the prevalence of drug and alcohol references in today's popular music and even clothing. Some of today's "styles" among drug users include hidden compartments in belt buckles, hats and even shoes.
He encouraged police officers and others to know the brands that contain little pouches.
Raves are also making a comeback, he said. Raves are parties with techno music and are often times associated with club drugs such as Ecstasy.
In a couple of workshops, police and educators discussed efforts underway to reduce gang activity in Midvale. When Unified police took over law enforcement for Midvale, they discovered that gang members were hanging out at Midvale Middle School.
"They were going to some of the middle schools and some of those areas and recruiting kids," said Unified Police Lt. Marianne Suarez, head of the Metro Gang Unit. "We're talking 19-, 20-year-olds hanging out at a middle school. That's a problem."
Unified police soon became part of the Midvale Advancement Program, a collaborative effort between law enforcement, the Canyons School District, the Boys and Girls Club, and others to fight the gang problem.
The biggest problem they saw was that children had nothing to do between the hours of 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. — or from the time school got out until the parents of many of those children got home. The Metro Gang Unit would specifically go to the Midvale area for suppression efforts during those hours, Suarez said.
In a survey of students from that area, the school district said it found that 60 percent weren't playing on an after-school sports team and 70 percent weren't involved in any after-school activity at all, such as dance or theater.
Representatives from Canyons are hosting a workshop at the conference to talk about their three-tiered approach to helping at-risk children, with particular attention to Midvale Elementary and Middle schools.
Former BYU star running back and San Francisco 49er Jamal Willis is now a civil rights hearing officer for the district. Willis has a bachelor's degree in sociology from BYU and a master's degree in educational counseling. He said the first time he went to Midvale Middle School, he saw a student punch the assistant principal while the boy was in the office being disciplined.
Today, Willis, who deals with the most at-risk children in the district, said the number of students he sees from Midvale for discipline review hearings has dramatically dropped thanks to the community providing more after-school programs, mentoring and creating positive influences.
Canyons officials credit organizations like the Copperview Rec Center, whose employees were willing to travel to the schools rather than make the students find a way to the center, and teach them about sports after school.
Willis said he knew of one student who was sleeping on a friend's couch at night because his parents were either homeless or incarcerated. That student was able to turn his life around after he became surrounded by positive influences.
Allan Whitmore, a prevention coordinator with the district, said some of the signs educators and teachers need to look for to identify at-risk youth include whether they are behind in their academic level, if their GPA is below 2.0 and if they are frequently absent from school. Whitmore said some studies suggest that students who are absent twice before Oct. 1 at the beginning of the year should be a red flag.
The Canyons has broken its student popular into a three-tier system and determined that only about 5 percent of its students are in the third tier, or the level where the most intensive intervention is required.
Other workshops at the gang conference included the continuing influence of Mexican cartels in Utah, human trafficking, and a closer look at how gang violence can affect innocent bystanders. One workshop looked at the 2008 murder of 7-year-old Maria Del Carmen Menchaca, a Glendale resident who was playing in her yard when she was hit by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting involving gang members.
The sister of Faviola Hernandez, who was shot and killed at Bushwacker Salon in Salt Lake City in 2007 during a robbery of her store, will also be part of Thursday's conference.