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Federal Way gangs stake territory in schools

In terms of addressing gang violence, Federal Way is still in its infancy — but the passion to steer youths away from gangs is present.

"We all know we have gangs in the community," said David Remmem, Federal Way Public Schools lead security officer. "We have gangs in the schools."

There are approximately 14 known gangs operating in Federal Way, Remmem said. Though some of the city's gangs identify themselves as originating within a specific ethnicity or culture, for example black or Hispanic gangs, members hail from all ethnicities, he said. However, gangs that have historically been considered of Hispanic origin are quickly growing in Federal Way and across the U.S., mirroring immigration rates, Remmem said.

Gangs can be found on the streets. But they are also represented within Federal Way's schools — mostly middle and high schools, Remmem said. Youths get involved at early ages: As young as age 10, some youths see the appeal of a gang. By middle school, recruiting and membership is in full swing, Remmem said. Most gang members are between ages 14 and 20, he said.

The city hosted an informational meeting Feb. 10 geared toward educating the public on Federal Way's gang population. The problem has not reached a point where city leaders and police are classifying it as uncontrollable, but it has caused concern. Speakers included several regional groups working to end gang violence and give youths a healthier way to express their emotions and overcome situations that can lead to gang involvement. The panel provided an overview of gang activity seen in the city's schools, reasons why youths are attracted to the tumultuous lifestyle and measures needed to curb youth violence.

The appeal

Youths join gangs for many reasons, said Dennis Turner, Building The Bridges executive director. They generally face social, emotional or economic problems, at home or school, that cause them to be rejected by mainstream society, he said. Gangs are attractive because they fill a void, Turner said. In the gang setting, struggling youths find a group of individuals that appear to be accepting, understanding and welcoming, he said.

"There's a reason they are joining these gangs and it's because we're not providing something for them," Remmem said.

The lifestyle

But with acceptance comes violence. Gang members operating in Federal Way partake in a number of crimes. Their monikers, similar to a call name or signature, and gang symbols are scrawled across public and private property. The police department's gang unit asks that all graffiti be reported, in an attempt to identify which gangs or gang members are responsible for the graffiti and recognize when new groups creep into Federal Way.

"They're marking their territory," Remmem said. "They are blasting everything they can with spray paint."

Not all crime in Federal Way, including exceptionally violent crime, is gang-related, officer Chris Walker said. But a handful of crimes accompany gang activity. The violence becomes a sort of addiction or disease, said Eleuthra Lisch, program director of the YMCA's Alive and Free program. In Federal Way, drugs usually go hand-in-hand with gangs. Prostitution is often not too far removed from gang ties as well, Walker said.

Gang members are street smart, Remmem said. They know how to obtain weapons.

"Do they have access to guns? Absolutely," Remmem said.

The city's gang population is mobile. Some live in Federal Way. Others are visitors. Either way, gang members here are highly reliant on transportation, Walker said. Unlike some cities, the gang presence is not characteristic to specific geographic locations, he said.

"Federal Way seems to be a transient stop (for gang members)," Walker said.

Connecting with youth

Gang intervention and prevention cannot be achieved by any lone agency or individual, speakers said. The community must work together.

"We can't prevent (gang activity) without the community's help," Remmem said.

Youths must feel there is someone in their lives who cares, someone who will listen. Within the region, there needs to be more youth outreach, said Oscar Muncia, resident and certified gang intervention specialist. Muncia, who recently moved to the area from Los Angeles, said Federal Way needs to take a more hands-on approach to gang prevention and genuinely relate to youths — instead of trying to suppress the problem and marginalize youths.

Instead of pushing rebellious behavior away, the community should take steps to provide youths an alternative to gang membership, Turner and others said.

"Show them that their voice counts," Muncia said.

Check it out

Organizers at the meeting stressed the importance of providing youth a safe outlet to engage in activities, socialize and share their problems and concerns. From Federal Way to Seattle, a variety of organizations fill this need, but more are needed. Those in attendance Wednesday offer an array of services and programs, some including youth or gang prevention and intervention. The agencies are as follows:

• AmeriCorps (Federal Way): (253) 945-2282 or mholsing@fwps.org

• Communities in Schools (Federal Way): (253) 528-0847

• Boys and Girls Club/ Ron Sandwith EX3 Teen Center (Federal Way): (253) 681-6500

• New Heart Youth Outreach in association with the South Sound Dream Center (Federal Way): (253) 288-1806

• Multi-Service Center's YouthBuild program (Federal Way): (253) 838-6810

• Multi-Service Center's Yes! program (Federal Way): (253) 248-1920

• King County Libraries: (253) 839-0257

• Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle's Youth Outreach (Seattle-based): (206) 461-3792

• YMCA's Alive and Free program (Seattle-based): (206) 382-50169

• Valley Cities Counseling and Consultation (Auburn-based): (253) 939-4055

• Victory Outreach Seattle (Seattle-based): (206) 244-8184

Get involved

To get involved in gang/youth prevention and intervention, call Teniel Sabin at (253) 835-2613 or e-mail teniels@cityoffederalway.com.

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