Is there a Gang Problem in Winston-Salem Schools? The Truth Behind the Headline

By Chad Nance

Do Winston-Salem Police Department officials say “If your child goes to school in Winston-Salem, he or she likely shares a hallway with a gang member?” Yes they do. Does the WSPD and school system consider the situation at crisis levels as indicated in a story that ran on Fox 8 on July 14th using the above statement from the WSPD?  Not according to the WSPD.

gang problem?
gang problem?

School System employee Donna Combs related a story to Fox 8 of how she wanted to move her son to from North Forsyth to Reagan High school because he was being threatened and marked for death by a local “gang”. The gang she referenced call themselves “Brick Squad” after a hip hop record label the kids like. Combs was seeking to bypass the guidelines set by the school system for out of zone transfers because she did not like the transfer option of Mt. Tabor High presented by the school system.

Sgt. Doss, the commander of Winston-Salem’s permanent 10 person Gang Unit, told CCD that, yes there are gangs in all of the Winston-Salem City Schools (the WSPD does not have jurisdiction in County school s such as Reagan High School and East Forsyth), but those numbers have been dropping since the Gang unit was formed in 2006 by the City Council’s Public Safety Committee. Implying that the school hallways are crawling with gang bangers is a vast over simplification of the issue and saying that the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools have a “problem” with gang activity simply isn’t the case.

In fact, according to Sgt. Doss and Cpt. Jeffery Watson, the Fox 8 reporter was told that the number of identified gang members has continued to drop for the last 5 to 7 years. “We have a full time unit responsible for monitoring and investigating gang activity and have identified members and role players allowing us to develop a rapport with them. This has allowed for us to be proactive in the community and schools where in many cases we head off problems before they start. “ stated Capt. Watson.

Combs’ original complaint, which forms the core of the Fox 8 story, is that her son was being threatened by a gang banger and his crew with the Brick Squad. According to Capt. Jefferey Watson, Ms. Combs assertions were investigated by officers with the Gang Unit and it was determined that the issue between Ms. Combs son and another student was personal and between the two of them and not gang related.

Capt. Watson’s account of the Combs case was as follows:

“The initial investigation into this matter was handled by one of our senior Gang Unit investigators, Corporal Michael Knight on June 12, 2014. As a result of the investigation Corporal Knight determined that there were ill feelings between the young man in the story and another student who had previously been validated as a gang member by our Gang Unit. Corporal Knight determined that there were no direct threats made and that the actions between the two were not gang motivated, and could have happened between any two young men in a high school on any given day. As a result of the investigation, Corporal Knight met with Ms. Combs and her son and informed them of his findings and informed them to contact him if the problems continued. No additional needs were conveyed by Ms. Combs or her son and no contact has been initiated with us, by them, since the incident.”

A school system spokesperson indicated that they cannot comment on any situation involving an employee due to privacy concerns.

After Combs’ initial complaint the school system offered to allow the young man to transfer to Mt. Tabor even though Combs hadn’t followed the transfer process. Combs refused, insisting on Reagan High School and that Mt. Tabor had a “similar” gang problem to the “problem” at North Forsyth. According to Sgt. Doss there is no school in Winston-Salem that has a particular problem and that, in truth, none of them have greater numbers of identified gang members than any other. Saying that Mt. Tabor has a gang “problem” or even that North Forsyth does is simply not possible with the available statistics and information.

Since the creation of a permanent and dedicated Gang Unit, the WSPD has been able to identify and track members of individual gangs inside of the schools and out. According to Sgt. Doss, the Gang Unit is currently aware of 700 gang members (adults and kids) on the streets of Winston-Salem. Considering that the estimated 2013 population of Winston-Salem was 236,411 people, that translates into a gang population that hovers around .29% of the general population.

Out of those 700 there is still no monolithic, single definition of gang or type of gang. In fact the definition of a “gang” is important to separating fact from fear. Sgt. Doss told CCD that to be considered a “Gang” by the Gang Unit a group of people needs to meet three criteria:

  • There are three or more people in the group.
  • They use common colors, signs, language, and symbols.
  • They are engaged in criminal activity.

That last one is where civilians can sometimes make a mistake and identify a bunch of kids who hang out together wearing a similar color or adults who have motorcycle and car clubs as a gang. Every bike club made up of hairy headed hog riders is not an OBC (outlaw biker club). Most of them, even though they take on the trappings of what is commonly thought of as a gang are often nothing more than a legitimate club.

In the schools the subtleties can be even more confusing. Identified gang members are not all part of some organized, city-wide effort. Some gang members can be involved in neighborhood gangs. These are traditional gangs by neighborhood here in Winston-Salem. Some of these gangs do commit crimes and have beefs with gangs in other neighborhoods. Kids can engage in criminal activity on behalf of these gangs. In order to join a prospective member has to “Put in work”. At the beginning this can involve something as simple as tagging with the gang’s symbols or it could mean the more sinister “Busting a lick” which means to rob someone.

wspd
wspd

There are, what the Gang Unit terms, “Non-Traditional” gangs. These are outside operators such as the Blood, Crips, MS-13, and others who come in with an eye to turning neighborhood gangs into franchises or recruiting a new crew from locals using tactics they’ve learned in Atlanta, LA, Charlotte, and other major metropolitan areas. There are also “Hybrid Gangs” which are combinations of the above formed by alliances and deals between gangs.

Simply identifying a student as a gang member does not, in this case, clarify which of those gangs they may be a member of and what kind of threat they truly present to other students. Sgt. Doss points out that as they track identified gang members it is not unusual for them to grow up, have kids, get jobs, and even get married as they age out of the emotional, economic, or personal safety reasons for joining a gang in the first place.

The Gang Unit has a set procedure for identifying students who might be gang members. “When they are interviewed most of them will admit that they are in a gang. They’re proud of it and tell us, ‘I bang with so and so’.”

Often a student will be identified by a school staff member who notices behavior that is routinely linked to gangs such as wearing colors, tagging notebooks or school property, and telling other students or teachers that they are in a gang. That information is given to each individual school’s SRO officer who in turn contacts the Gang Unit as in the case of Ms. Combs son. At that point an investigator from the Gang Unit will work with the SRO officer to interview the student.

This does not only help identify real gang members it also helps weed out the “wannabes” who are playing gangster and are no real threat in any way. These kids claim to be a part of a gang, but when Gang Unit investigators ask them specific questions about gang life and internal symbols and mythology, the kids often known nothing. Sgt. Doss was quick to point out that “Wannabe’s can become a gonnabe” if parents, the community, school administrators, and the police do not step in to save the kid while there is still time.

The vast majority of gang related crime takes place away from schools, Sgt. Doss said. “Gang members are generally going to beef with other gang members.” There haven’t been serious cases of non gang-affiliated kids being targeted by specific gangs. Individual issues between kids arise, such as the situation with Ms. Combs son, but that does not make the incident or situation gang related whether one of the students is an identified gang member or not.

“We’re ahead of the gangs in the schools.” Sgt. Doss said, “Of course we could always do better. The number fluctuates, but it has been much higher than it is right now.” Being pro-active and involving the entire community in the care, protection, and mentoring of all our young people is critical to ensure that gangs do not become a major problem or crisis in our schools. Sgt. Doss and his Gang Unit are the point of that particular spear and currently there is no reason for alarm or panic for the students and parents of Winston-Salem’s schools.