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Leaders say city making progress on gang problem

By Shavonne Potts
spotts@salisburypost.com
Salisbury has long been known as the home of Dan Nicholas Park and other attractions. But at the beginning of 2007, it became known as a small city with a big city problem.
Gang activity came to the forefront after the death of a young girl who was killed in the crossfire among rival gang members.
Treasure Feamster, 13, was an innocent bystander, who has since become the face of the tragedy of youth violence.
Less than a month before her death, 14-year-old Brooklyn A.P. Jones was stabbed because he wouldn’t give up his bicycle. He was stabbed by 15-year-old Daniel McConnaughey.
The community demanded something be done to create a safer environment.
More than 500 citizens and community leaders gathered to come up with solutions. Several community groups made a commitment to do everything from providing jobs, to serving as mentors and educating parents about gangs and violence.
Neary three years later change has taken place.
The community identified law enforcement as the top means to address youth violence.
Law enforcement
The Salisbury Police Department increased the number of officers who specifically work gang-related crimes.
The department was able to add officers to its gang task force division and members are often asked to speak at churches and neighborhood meetings about gangs.
Chief Deputy Steve Whitley said the gang summit allowed the community to open the door and “get it of the closet,” referring to the issue of gangs and violence.
He commended the city council for being willing to commit money for extra gang officers and talking about the issue.
“For that we are eternally grateful,” he said.
More officers give the police department the “ability to concentrate on special problems and gangs are a special problem,” Whitley said.
There are still issues that come up, but citizens and community leaders being willing to start the dialogue is “very positive,” he said.
The department has DARE and G.R.E.A.T., Gang Resistance Education and Training, a program that teaches children about drug education, crime prevention and gang violence.
The police target children in the elementary and middle schools, because “it’s been our experience they are as knowledgeable about this as we are.”
They also try to head off children before they become involved in gangs.
Community
Project Safe Neighborhoods, a national initiative to reduce gun violence by partnering volunteer citizens with law enforcement, has held various workshops including a job readiness program in 2008. This year, Project Safe had a workshop where a former inmate from the N.C. Department of Corrections spoke to a group of young people about prison life and Livingstone College students spoke about “When Things Go Right” and college life.
Many churches have also held community meetings and teen summits. In March 2008, Gethemane Baptist Church hosted a Teen Summit along with Project Safe, Project Hope and Interdenominational Fellowship of Churches. Project Hope is operated through Project Safe Salisbury. It is the spiritual element of Project Safe Neigbhorhoods.
The Salisbury Police Department heads the Project Safe program.
Government
Salisbury Mayor Susan Kluttz, along with other mayors in the region, spoke to legislators about increasing the punishment gang members could face. In July 2008, the bill was approved by the House and Senate.
Kluttz also speaks to more than 1,600 third-graders each school year emphasizing the importance of being a good citizen, discussing the deterrence of gang involvement, drug activity and gun violence, said Karen Wilkinson, city public information spokeswoman.
Mentoring
The city of Salisbury adopted a mentoring program as part of its 2009-2010 goals. Some of its members mentor 20 to 25 young people, including city councilman Pete Kennedy, who is a mentor at Overton Elementary.
Mayor Kluttz is a mentor at Koontz Elementary.
Liz Tennant, program director of Times Two Mentoring, which is a program under the Rowan County Youth Services Bureau, sees many at-risk children who are often referred to the program.
“I think in many of those (initiative) areas there have been good strides,” she said.
After the gang summit, Tennant has paid more attention to how she implements some activities in the program. She is beginning to let the youth who participate make some decisions about how they spend their time.
“I’m paying more attention and, therefore, recognizing the differences. It’s very important for the community to engage the youth as part of the solution,” Tennant said.
She said getting the youth more involved “gives them the responsibility to control the outcome.”
She admits, like others have, there is still a long way to go.
“This is a problem that isn’t easy or quickly remedied. We have to remain very committed and focused on the fact that we want a safe community,” she said.
She wishes there were more volunteers. After the summit there were probably only about three or four new volunteer mentors.
The program wants more adult volunteers and hope that citizens will look for areas to get involved, Tennant said.
The outcome
In October 2008, Daniel McConnaughey accepted a plea agreement. He’s now 17 and is currently serving a 10 year sentence.
The teenager authorities say is responsible for Treasure Feamster’s death, Reginald Terrell Leach, suddenly turned down a plea agreement Thursday while in Superior Court. Leach, 18, had been talking with his attorney, Salisbury’s Nancy Gaines, behind closed doors for nearly an hour before he refused the plea agreement. A trial will be scheduled later.

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