Spokane County has the resources to throw judges and jail time at gang members who are caught committing crimes.
But it has nothing to support parents who begin to find gang symbols, red or blue clothing or notice suspicious new friends who act or dress in a certain way.
Spokane County Sheriff Mark Sterk hopes he has a three-step plan to change that.
Starting this week, Sterk and Spokane Valley Police Chief Cal Walker are pairing Valley patrol officers with existing school resource deputies to double the police presence in many county high schools.
“We want to send a message that if you want to come around our high schools to recruit or sell drugs, most likely, you are going to go to jail,” Sterk said. “One of the things the school people have told us if you come in and help us for the first 30 days it will really set the tone for the rest of the year as far as keeping the campuses safe.”
The problem is that some school officials first learned of the initiative through news reports rather from Sterk or Walker.
“It was a surprise to me and also to our high school principals,” Melanie Rose, a spokeswoman for the Central Valley School District, said last week. “But we are lucky to have sheriff’s deputies in our schools. That probably does a lot to inhibit students bringing that activity into the schools.”
Sheriff’s spokesman Cpl. Dave Reagan said he expected to hear that some school officials were unaware of the plan.
“The idea started small,” Reagan said.
The plan is to have a patrol officer from Spokane Valley Police to serve with school resource deputies, which are in every Spokane County high school, except for Riverside and East Valley.
“We are still going to try to target East Valley and Riverside. But as much as possible, we don’t want to pull school resource deputies from their assigned schools,” he said.
Deputies will rotate to East Valley and Riverside when available, he said.
Jeff Miller, principal of East Valley High School, commended the plan, although he couldn’t actually point to specific gang problems.
“There is that ever-present undertone of gang activity. We suspect it’s the gang affiliation stuff that does provide the source of the drugs and violence that sometimes gets into schools,” Miller said. “If we can cut the supply off, that’s positive.”
Gang members have learned not to advertise, he said.
“They know how to operate, to lay low at school,” Miller said. “I’ve been 17 years in this building and seen the same level of activity the entire time. They are definitely there. It’s something we definitely don’t want to turn our backs on.”
The second part of the plan will be to hold a communitywide meeting in October to bring several groups to discuss ideas to combat gang activity, Cal Walker said.
“I think what happens a lot of times is that we in law enforcement start recognizing the criminal actions … and all of the sudden it becomes a law enforcement issue. This is bigger than that,” Walker said.
“Whether it’s at the mall, whether it’s at schools, whether it’s at the parks or standing on the corner, it’s a community issue,” he said. “And it can’t be driven by law enforcement. It has to be driven by the community.”
While the Sheriff’s Office has drug units and gang units to target crime, parents have no help or safety net, Sterk said.
“My concern is that there aren’t any resources in this community for a family when they’ve got a kid that starts to go down that gang road,” Sterk said. “There are absolutely no resources to plug those families and kids into to help change that behavior.”
Sterk plans to take his case to Washington’s Congressional delegation for funding modeled after a successful program that uses federal money to help remove children out of drug homes.
“Let’s give (parents) some resources,” Sterk said, “so they can save those kids from going down that road.”
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