Gang activity in our region has been in the headlines recently. Young people have died and many families have been affected.
It isn’t just a law enforcement issue, according to Ed Ryan, the county’s gang prevention coordinator. “It’s an issue that anyone who lives and works in the county should feel obligated to do their part to try and address.”
Through his position, part of Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, Ryan works with local law enforcement agencies and collaborates with the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force and the community. Below is a recent Q&A with Ryan to provide you with information about the issue and the county’s efforts:
I’m not sure if it’s gotten worse or we’ve just seen a recent spike. Gang activity has been around in Fairfax County since I started working here in 1998. There have been times where there appears to be an increased presence and times where there are lulls.
The biggest trend is youth being recruited at an early age. I’ve done more presentations and had more meetings at elementary schools last year than I have in my previous 10 years in this position combined. Also gone are the days of “primary colors” and traditional gang clothing and tattoos. It still exists, but changes all the time. Advances in social media tools and technology have been huge for recruiting and enhancing gangs’ overall organization.
Mostly because something is missing in their lives. Many youth originally join because they have low self-esteem and a tough time making friends. They may be socially awkward, struggle in school and are often those kids who get bullied. Some kids think gangs are “cool.” This ties into the low self-esteem angle.
A gang member will befriend a youth. The relationship begins innocently enough, but soon the gang member introduces the youth to other gang members who slowly attempt to get the youth to perform tasks that are often illegal. The gang will continue to push the envelope to explore how much they can get the kid to do before he/she shows any resistance. If there is resistance after a while, that kid could be threatened for fear that he/she could become a snitch and talk to the police.
Girls can and have become members of gangs, however their at-risk status is often tied to sex trafficking. Many gang members look at young girls as “property” that can bring in money to support the gang. Boys are at risk as well, but it’s primarily girls. We’ve also seen girls embedded in the gang lifestyle act as recruiters to lure young, impressionable girls with low self-esteems into the gang world.
I believe there has been great progress. There’s no doubt that some of the violent activity attributed to gangs the past few months has put law enforcement and prevention coordinators under the microscope. However, if you dig deeper you’ll see that Fairfax County and Northern Virginia are in many ways a model on how to deal with gang activity. There are many combined efforts among the police, the courts, the schools, nonprofits and the mental health, alcohol and drug services professionals. Our crime stats compared to areas with similar population are much, much lower. I’ve received calls from all over Virginia, Maryland and other states requesting info on how Northern Virginia deals with gang activity.
My primary duties involve helping kids who are in gangs get out and ultimately preventing at-risk youth from joining gangs. I do a lot of trainings for professional staff and community awareness presentations. I also oversee different services and programs tailored toward gang-involved and at-risk youth, as well as their families.
There is no magic program. Reducing gang activity should be viewed as a process by multiple agencies or sources. Fairfax County Public Schools devotes two weeks of its middle- and high-school health and physical education curriculum toward education about gang sex trafficking. We have counselors, home-based providers and court staff who receive consistent advanced gang prevention training.
The Intervention, Prevention and Education program consists of full-time counselors providing home-based services and mentoring to gang-involved or at-risk youth between the ages of 10-21. Numerous presentations have been done in the community for teachers, counselors, parents and students. There are after-school programs designed to surround kids with positive activities and peers.
I have four counterparts in the surrounding jurisdictions as part of the Northern Virginia Gang Task Force. We meet regularly and have put on large-scale trainings with a regional focus. There are regional programs like soccer tournaments, tattoo removal efforts and funding to provide paid summer internships to at risk-youth. Approaching things regionally, we can share intel and get out ahead of new trends and cliques. It also allows a united approach toward reducing gang activity, which in turn results in a safer community.