Event meant to keep neighborhoods safe by offering alternatives early

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
Salisbury Police Detective Todd Sides titles his parents’ guide to gangs “Not My Child!”
He hears it all the time from parents who tell him, “My kid’s not in a gang,” when in fact Sides knows the child is a gang member.
“We have to understand that maybe sometimes it is our kid,” Sides told a workshop full of parents and grandparents Saturday at the Project Safe Family Day at the J.F. Hurley YMCA.
Sides gave the adults a primer in why kids join gangs, what signs of gang involvement to look for, what effect gangs have on communities and how to interpret some hand signals and graffiti.
A new father, Sides encouraged parents to know everything their children are doing and make no excuses for invading their privacy.
“I know I’ll be going through my kid’s bookbag,” he promised.
In a nearby conference room, Patrick Wilhelm, a special agent for U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, was giving a “Toxic Culture” workshop focusing on Internet safety for children.
He delivered a lot of somber insights, statistics and the grim reality that “not everyone online is who they say they are.”
Kids live on the Internet these days and “virtual” to them is real, Wilhelm said.
Youth often are vastly more adept with the technology, social networking, Web cams, blogs and more, but in the process they set themselves up to become victims.
They provide predators with too much information. They post images of themselves on line. They participate or become victims of cyber-bullying, while their virtual world has no ratings and often no controls.
“It’s still pretty much the Wild West out there,” Wilhelm warned.
Family Days at the YMCA grew out of the two Gang Summits the city of Salisbury organized for the community in 2007, which led to eight areas of focus.
The events are meant to give positive intervention and prevention messages for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade. Just as important, they serve as educational opportunities for parents and grandparents.
“It starts with parents, I believe,” Veronica Fincher said after attending Wilhelm’s workshop. “Kids are going to do what their parents do.”
Toni Pendry of Granite Quarry brought her three grandchildren, ages 6 to 10, to the Family Day as much for her as them. She wanted information on gangs, drugs and the Internet to have more tools to protect her grandchildren in the future.
“A lot of it is very informative,” Pendry said.
People who attended each workshop were eligible to win door prizes.
Kids also received free school supplies on their way home from the four-hour event.
“I’m so pleased with the crowd, the YMCA, the agencies and Project Safe Neighborhoods,” Jackie Harris said. “The beauty of this day is the partnerships and the community coming together.”
Some 830 hot dogs and Cheerwines were served to participants for free, and Harris put the crowd at well over 1,000 people. She judged it the biggest of the three Family Days held by Project Safe Neighborhoods and sponsored by the Rowan County United Way.
Harris has a major role in both organizations, as an executive with the United Way and a volunteer since the inception of Project Safe in Salisbury.
Project Safe Neighborhoods is a federally funded program created to reduce violent gun crime by partnering volunteer citizens with law enforcement.
Past violent offenders are notified that their crimes must stop and those willing to change their ways are assisted with community resources. Others resisting the warnings and help face the maximum allowable sentences for any future gun crimes.
“Children are currently being targeted for gang activity at a very young age and by involving children in positive and productive roles, we can potentially deter their involvement in future gang activity,” Deputy Chief Rory Collins, Project SAFE director for the Salisbury Police Department, said before Saturday’s Family Day.
As usual, the community participation came in the form of informational booths and displays.
They included Project Safe, the Youth Services Bureau, Rowan Partners in Education, Communities in Schools, Salisbury Parks and Recreation, the YMCA, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Adolescent Family Enrichment Council, Salisbury-Rowan Community Service Council, Youth in Action against Tobacco Council and the Rowan County Health Department.
Activities for kids included the X-R-Cade Workshop, a ventriloquist act, moon bounce, interactive games, and arts and crafts projects. Additional children’s venues or offerings were the Kids’ Internet Safety and “Police Officers are Our Friends” educational program by Salisbury Police; Chipper the Squirrel, the Salisbury Parks and Recreation mascot; a Salisbury Police car; a Rowan County Sheriff’s Office display; and a Highway Patrol helicopter.
For ICE, Wilhelm works in computer forensics and child exploitation cases. Online sexual predators know where to go and how to talk with their victims, Wilhelm said, and the old parental warning ó “Don’t talk to strangers” ó doesn’t have the same effect in the virtual world where the hundreds of people a child has contact with are considered “friends.”
According to 2006 research, one in seven kids between 10 and 17 years old have received sexual advances on the Internet. Wilhelm said 4 percent receive aggressive sexual solicitations and 34 percent experience unwanted exposure to sexual material.
Wilhelm said one in five girls and one in 10 boys are sexually victimized through the Internet before adulthood.
If a child is “just on the Internet,” it’s not the same as “just watching TV,” Wilhelm said. He encouraged parents to have the family computers in shared areas of the home, such as the living room or kitchen, just like the telephone used to be.
In the past, parents and grandparents dealt with public places in a real world when it was easier to identify what posed dangers to their kids.
But public places in the virtual world are different, Wilhelm said, “and we don’t know where all these places of danger are.”
He offered the parents names of Internet content filters such as Net Nanny, Webroot and Safe Eyes and resources they could use for more information on preventing child exploitation on the Internet.
Good Web sites include www.thinkuknow.co.uk; www.netsmartz.org; www.ncmec.org; and www.bgca.org.