Young people at the conference held hands and pledged to honor their parents.
With known gang signs sprawled across the territory’s neighborhoods and schools, it’s time for residents to wake up to the harsh reality of gangs in America’s Paradise, experts warned last week.
Residents got a sobering look at the state of gangs throughout the territory — and right here on St. John — during a V.I. Anti-Gang Committee conference on Wednesday night, May 26, at the Westin Resort and Villas.
The conference drew more than 100 St. John residents including parents, teens and young children who heard from both national and local gang experts on the alarming and undeniable rise of gangs in the last few years.
“I could go right now and show you gang writing on classroom doors right here on St. John at your middle school,” said LaVelle Campbell, school security manager and local gang expert. “A lot of you are in denial, but that does no one good. No one wants to believe what is going on.”
“You need to open your eyes,” said Campbell.
There are more than 500 gang members — some as young as nine years old — across the territory representing gangs like the Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings and more, Campbell explained.
“I confiscated two knives off a first grader and I took a knife away from an eight-year-old boy,” said Campbell. “You have Crips here on St. John.”
And it’s not just the territory’s young men who are being lured into lives of violence. There are at least two well established female gangs in the territory as well, Campbell added.
Last week was not the gang expert’s first time on St. John, but this time instead of presenting his Gangs 101 talk, Campbell sat back as the crowd viewed the impressive “Gangs in Paradise.”
Blurry videos of school fights captured on cell phone cameras were just some of the disturbing images presented in the documentary, which was produced by Lambert Media.
The film included jail cell interviews with convicted gang members and interviews with parents of slain children. “Gangs in Paradise” also included an interview with two St. John parents who suspected their son of gang involvement.
“We don’t always know what is going on,” said the mother. “It’s time to start paying attention, especially in schools.”
The territory-wide Anti-Gang Committee is a collaborative effort between numerous agencies including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Weed and Seed, Project Safe Neighborhoods, V.I. Police Department, Department of Human Services, the Office of the Governor and more.
The St. John conference was one event during a week-long conference and training program the committee hosted on all three islands last week. With the St. John conference drawing the biggest crowd, Love City has taken the first step in addressing the problem, according to Director of Intervention Services Cira Burke.
“It’s so nice to see all these children here with their parents,” said Burke. “We all share the passion of wanting to make a difference in the community and help our young kids who are facing drugs and gangs.”
During her work with Intervention Services for the past decade, Burke has lost 42 children through gang related violence and hopes to save at least one person from a similar fate.
“Tonight we want to make a difference to at least one person in this room,” she said. “That person could be your son, your grandson, your daughter or your neighbor. This is not just a black and white issue.”
“This is clearly impacting our entire community and it needs to stop,” said Burke. “This is not a St. John problem or a St. Croix problem or a St. Thomas problem alone. This is a territory problem and a global problem.”
Contributing factors range from poverty to teenage pregnancies, explained Burke.
“According to the Kid’s Count Data from the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands 55.8 percent of children in the Virgin Islands live in single parent homes,” she said. “Our family structure has changed. And 29 percent of our children are living in poverty.”
“Looking at teen births, our teenagers are getting pregnant at rate of 57 per 1,000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19,” said Burke. “What is really going on in our community?”
School proficiency levels and drop out rates play a part in the rise of gangs as well, Burke added.
“Our reading proficiency at the seventh grade level is 22 percent,” she said. “In math we have a 41 percent proficiency rate. What does that say about us as a community?”
“We’re not reading and we’re not doing math — what are we doing,” Burke asked. “Our drop out rate — we’re not looking good there either. We have a 13 percent drop out rate in the territory which is twice has high as it is in the United States.”
Teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19 not going to school and not working are ripe material for gang members, Burke added.
“One out of every four males in this age is not going to school and not working,” said Burke. “These are detached youth and that is a very serious problem. These kids formulate gangs and they rob your homes and rape your kids.”
Addressing the problem of gangs starts in the home, and must be followed through in schools and the community, according to Burke.
“We need to take a personal look at what we’re doing as parents,” she said. “We need to look at every aspect of this. The hardest part is looking at what we say, what we do and how we think.”
“This is a community effort and we all need to buy into it,” Burke said.
Engaging the youth in attendance, Dr. Celia Victor, director of clinical compliance, asked each young person to the front of the room to hold hands.
“Repeat after me, ‘I will be honest; I will love my community; I will be fair; I will listen to my parents,’” Victor had the students recite.
Other speakers at the conference included Assistant U.S. Attorney General Ishmael Meyers, Police Director Retired L. Louis Jordan, Sgt. Christopher Hill, Sgt. Leroy Contee, Bonny Corbeil and Winsbut McFarlane.