Someone brought up the subject of gangs in Lawton. I’m not sure my reaction was appropriate, so I had to do some rethinking on the subject. I thought back to my first dealings with gangs, which was in Taos, NM at the junior high where I taught. In 1991, the gang problem was just getting going in Taos, but it was a problem. With such a mix of races and cultures in a low income, welfare area, there was going to be problems. Drugs and alcohol were already prevalent. Movies made the whole gang image popular. It was a recipe for disaster. Yet people did not want to look seriously at the problem. I remember talking to a lady who had just moved to Taos with her son to "get away from the inner-city gang problems in CA." When I mentioned the gang problem in Taos, she was shocked. She thought that such a small, beautiful town could not have gang problems. I didn’t bother to tell her about the serious drug and alcohol problems per capita. People did not want to hear about the bad stuff. I remember being in a teacher/parent meeting for a young man named Richard. His mother and he met with all of his teachers to discuss his lack of enthusiasm for education. When I mentioned that his gang affiliations were part of the problem, his mother looked stunned as if it was the first time she had ever heard of such a thing. Although all the teachers agreed with me, the mom did not want to believe her son was in a gang. I simply said, "Ask him" and she did. He shrugged as he told her that yes, he was in a gang. My thought was, "How could she not know?" Years later I read where Richard was wanted in two murders of young women. This young man had been in the same classroom with my son.
There were lots of other gang guys that were real problems at Taos Jr. High in 1991-92. I had many confrontations with gang kids including taking a ball cap off the head of a kid who refused to take it off himself and pulling a young man off the bus when he ignored my instructions. Several teachers came running when I did this, because it turned out that the young man had been in Springer Boy’s School and was considered quite dangerous. My response was, "If he is dangerous, why is he here with other kids." I once confronted a group of young men who were behind the school building, which was off limits. After they walked off, I found a knife on the ground – what they were doing with it, who knows? I once turned in one of my favorite students because he came to class having obviously been beaten by someone. Little did I know that it was a gang initiation. I broke up more fights in the first six weeks of school than I had broken up in all my years of teaching. It was a mess, and I have not even mentioned the girls and their part in gangs.
For me as a teacher, I felt it was important to have strong discipline with the students showing no fear; treating each kid fairly and respectfully goes a long way. I could deal with it. But to have my son in the same school in the midst of the problem, was more than I could handle. Bo was instructed to always be with a friend, never to be alone, and always be in site of teachers. It was important to be alert to what was going on around you. What kind of school life was that? Eventually kids thought that life was normal – but it was not, and I hated it.
After one year of teaching and in Taos, we bought a place north of Questa and began homeschooling. The gang problem in Taos was not our reason for the move, but it certainly was a factor. Not too long after we moved, a neighbor that I did not know well, called to suggest that my son and her grandson get together since they were the same age. During the conversation she mentioned how bad the gang problem was in Taos and how her grandson had had a difficult time at the jr high. I said, "Oh, your grandson went to Taos Jr. High. What was his name? Maybe I know him." When she told me his name, I was horrified. He was a gang kid and had been one of the biggest problems for my son. Turns out, he had been kicked out of Taos and was now in school at Questa. The grandmother insisted that her grandson was not in a gang and not a problem – that it was those "other kids" – yeah right. We did not get together with them.
So when someone recently mentioned the gang problem in Lawton, my first reaction was to think, "No biggie – there are gangs in every city." Then I did my rethinking. Although I think it is important to not live in fear of things like a trip to the mall because of gangs, I do think it is important to be aware, be alert, and park near the entrance of stores. Stay with someone. Gangs are a problem, but don’t be deluded; they are everywhere. And make sure your schools and city councils take the problem seriously and deal severely with gangs. If my experiences with gangs was almost 20 years ago, how much worse are they now? Be smart.