By Hamil R. Harris, Special to the AFRO

Prince George’s County School officials recently teamed up with the police and community leaders to make parents aware of the growing problem with gangs across the county and how their children could be recruited to be part of these often violent organizations and not even know it.

A hush fell over the room at the Good Luck Community Center in Lanham as people watched a gang initiation where a group of teenagers formed a circle, knocked a young man to the ground and proceeded to kick and punch him. But then it stopped, the teen was picked up and embraced as their newest brother.

A list shown at the gang awareness forum of some of the active gangs in Prince George’s County. (Courtesy Photo)

But one young man in his twenties didn’t need to watch a presentation that included images of gang symbols, statistics about 20 major gangs operating in the county or a video showing a row of blood stained bodies killed by the gangs because they challenged a way of life that is more common for too many teenagers and young adults in this area.

“I was going to a new school without a lot of obstacles,” said Javier Saavedra, a former member of the MS 13 gang, who said he joined the gang as a teenager because he was picked on.  “They were laughing at the way you dress, laughing the way you speak and you want to fit in.  I thought that the gang would be for protection. When I was in middle school a group of teens would fight,” take his money and he got tired of it. “We had to defend ourselves.

Saavedra, 33, who attended William Wirt Middle School, was frightened at times because there was a group of teens from a D.C. group home who picked on kids who appeared to be isolated. “They would wait for you after school. They would steal your shoes, they would steal your money, that is what started the gang, we started to fight back.”

Dana Brown, coordinator of community outreach at Parkdale High School, said, “We are connecting families and students to things that will improve the quality of their liv es and one of the things we tasked to do was to create an advisory council to complete a needs assessment in the community and one of the things very important is public safety.”

“We decided to have an awareness campaign on gang activity because sometimes if people don’t see it they don’t think that it is happening,” Brown said. “We want to make the community more vigilant and lets us work as a team.”

Sgt. Shannon Earl, a safety officer for the Prince George’s Public School, said he is organizing more community events for when school is out. “What we need is collaborative effort, not just the county police, not just the school system. They say it takes a village,” said Earl. “We have to engage our parents and community organizations. Just locking them up is not the answer. People join gangs to identify.”

Saavedra said he got out of the gang because he was doing all of the fighting but when he needed help his friends couldn’t help him. He also said his daughter was born, his “mother was suffering,” and he learned about the Crossroads Youth Outreach Center, a non-profit group used to with teens in Prince Georges County.

“The program I now work for helped me to take all of my gang related tattoos off. They also helped me with job training. I started as a carpet cleaner and then I went to FedEx as a delivery driver and then I was hired by the outreach center.”

Saavedra said the program only serves youth in Montgomery County. “I want to get  Prince George’s to come. I will come and speak anytime. We have different kinds of field trips and when youth are exposed to other parts of life, it changes them.”