CONYERS - A few dozen parents, students and community members gathered in the Conyers Middle School auditorium Thursday night to hear several student resource officers and other law enforcement representatives speak about gangs and violence among youth in Rockdale County.
They met for the State of Our Youth symposium, hosted by the Rockdale County Branch of the NAACP in collaboration with the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office, Conyers Police Department and Rockdale County Public Schools.
"We're truly, truly interested in where we are and how we make ... changes. The whole process of safety, when it comes to the community and schools, is a collaborative effort," RCPS Superintendent Samuel King said Thursday night.
Rockdale County Sheriff Jeff Wigington said Thursday's meeting was not because the county "all of a sudden" has a gang or violence problem among the county's youth.
Wigington said the meeting was not a knee-jerk reaction to a problem, but rather an important preventative step.
"Rockdale is still a very safe place. We don't have a problem that a lot of places do, but we're trying to stay on top of it so we don't have a problem," he said Thursday. "We have a lot of great kids ... but there are some kids who need attention. Obviously, we've had an increase in population, and we're going to see new things because of that."
Wayne Johnson, chairman of communications and publicity for the Rockdale NAACP, said the meeting was held to inform parents and community members about Rockdale gangs and violence from first-hand information, rather than rumors.
RCSO Lt. Mike Sellers gave parents a list of what to look for if they suspect their child might be in a gang, including wearing sagging pants, displaying burn marks or tattoos, wearing certain colors or numbers, showing hand signs or painting or drawing graffiti.
"Just because they wear baggy clothes doesn't mean they're in a gang," he said. "If you see a number of these things by your child or somebody, you need to pay attention."
He said officers have noticed that many kids - boys and girls - join gangs because of a poor family setting, money, drugs, sex or needing to belong, adding that certain kids try to recruit others.
"We try to build confidence with the kids," said Heritage High School SRO Deputy Steven Minor. "I've got a lot of good kids, but I've got a handful of knuckleheads, too. We don't have a problem yet, but if we don't do something, we're going to have a mess on our hands."
He said anytime an SRO sees a student with something that could be gang-related, such as certain clothing items, belt buckles and accessories like bandanas, they take it away from the student.
"I've got so many bandannas that I'm going to make a blanket out of them one day," he said before bringing out more than a dozen bandannas tied together. "If I see it, I take it."
He encourages students to talk to their SRO's, even if it's in privacy.
"A lot of times, they don't want to talk to me in front of people, but they will slide me a note under the door," he said.
Officers suggested that parents talk to their children, especially if they notice a problem.
"The rules in my house were simple - if I got in trouble at school, I got in trouble at home," said Superior Court Judge David Irwin. "Until parents decide not to be buddies, we're going to have a problem."
He and the officers encouraged parents to search their children's rooms and personal items and discipline them appropriately if necessary.
"(Kids) don't have rights to privacy," Irwin said. "Know what your children are doing, who they're doing it with, and when they're not doing it right, you deal with it. You have to know what's going on."
Sellers said RCSO also is helping kids and the community by having all of the SRO's constantly communicate with each other about their schools, attending gang intelligence classes, conducting street-level gang enforcement and providing programs for youth.
Johnson said another important step is to continue holding meetings like the State of Our Youth.
"We're committed to continuing this on a regular basis," he said.
Michelle Floyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SideBar: At A Glance
Signs to look for if you suspect your child is in a gang:
* Information provided by Rockdale County school resource officers