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Community meeting to be held Tuesday at Board Auditorium on proposed gang policy

June 25, 2011|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com

Washington County Public Schools will hold a community meeting on Tuesday afternoon on a proposed policy that would address gangs, gang activity and similar destructive or illegal group behavior in schools.

The policy is not in reaction to local incidents, but a mandate from the state, said Board of Education member Jacqueline Fischer, who chairs the school board's Policy Committee. The gang policy is required by the state's Safe Schools Act of 2010.

The school system has a harassment policy that has some similarity to this, and a student handbook that lists punishments for various offenses, Fischer said. Neither speaks directly to gang-related activity, she said.

The only reference in the current student handbook about gangs states students "shall not engage or participate in any illegal act, such as arranging for the purchase of drugs, alcohol, or other controlled substances, engaging in criminal gang activity, threatening the safety of any person, or participating in any activity that may be improper, unethical, or inappropriate," according to a copy of the handbook.

The proposed policy defines a gang and gang activity, and would require all school employees to report any suspected gang activity or similar destructive or illegal group behavior to the principal or school security officer.

A gang or criminal gang is defined as a group or association of three or more people whose members engage in a pattern of criminal activity, have an overt or covert organizational or command structure, and whose primary objective or activity is the commission of one or more underlying crimes, including acts by juveniles that would be underlying crimes if committed by adults.

The proposed policy also states a person may not threaten another person, or friend or family member of a person, with violence to prevent the person from leaving a criminal gang or to get the person to participate in a gang. This applies to activities on or near school vehicles or property, regardless of whether school is in session.

Hagerstown Police Department Sgt. Johnny Murray, who oversees school resource officers, said there isn't an open presence of gangs in local public schools. But, he said, "Anyone would be naive to think there are kids in the schools who aren't affiliated in some way or loosely with a gang because there's a gang presence in town."

Nobody knows whether the proposed gang policy or discipline policy will have a big impact, Murray said.

"If schools are not getting support from the home environment, it's an uphill battle," Murray said.

Fischer said if there were true gang activity going on in schools, the police would have to step in. She said she views the proposed policy as an educational tool, raising awareness of gang issues.

The school system's proposed administrative regulations for the proposed policy call for gang awareness education to be provided for students, parents, school faculty and personnel, law enforcement, and community stakeholders, Fischer said.

Tuesday's community meeting will include Student Government Association members, parents, teachers, principals, vice principals, police, school resource officers, PTA presidents and community members, Fischer said. The meeting will be at 4 p.m. in the Board Auditorium at the school system's Central Office off Commonwealth Avenue.

Local public-school systems must submit their gang policy or regulation to the state superintendent of schools by Sept. 1, according to a copy of Maryland's Model Policy to Address Gangs, Gang Activity, and Similar Destructive or Illegal Group Behavior.

The Board of Education introduced its proposed policy at a May 3 meeting with a unanimous vote. On June 7, the board voted unanimously to extend the amount of time before the policy must come back for a final reading until Aug. 2. School system officials needed more time to get comments from the community about the proposed policy and administrative regulations.

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If you go ...

What: Community meeting about Washington County Public Schools' proposed gang policy

When: Tuesday, 4 p.m.

Where: Board Auditorium, Washington County Public Schools' Central Office, 820 Commonwealth Ave., Hagerstown

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