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Putting the Puzzle Together:
Solving Issues of Gangs and Youth Violence in Appleton

by Eleanor Cameron, Melissa Ducat, and Melinda Tempelis

 

The city of Appleton does not exist separate from its neighbors. Its role as the largest city in the fast-growing Fox Valley means it is in many ways the center of the region. Its identity remains closely tied to neighboring communities such as Grand Chute, Kimberly, Neenah, and Menasha. Residents of the Fox Valley travel freely among the cities that run together at their edges, creating an unbroken chain of malls, factories and grocery stores, not to mention school districts and neighborhoods, along Highway 41.

The Fox Valley lies along the Fox River between Oshkosh and Green Bay. Major highways provide direct access to the larger communities of Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Madison, and Green Bay. One of the fastest growing areas of Wisconsin, the Fox Valley is home to more than 200,000 people. The city of Appleton lies in the center of the valley, with a population of 70,000. Appleton was incorporated in 1857 around two major institutions: Lawrence College and the paper mill industry.

Both the Fox Valley and the city of Appleton have experienced changing demographics in recent years. The expanding economy of the area has attracted new residents from throughout the state and country. Some new residents moved to Appleton to escape big city crime and other problems. Many residents of Appleton and the Fox Valley see the area as offering all the amenities of a large metropolitan area with the feel of a small town.

Growing Pains

Appleton has been described as experiencing “growing pains.” This city, once a homogeneous, almost exclusively white town, now includes a substantial number of Hmong, Latino, and African American residents. Currently, the Hmong comprise approximately 5 percent of Appleton’s population. The changing demographics have proved difficult for many of the residents.

The inescapable difficulty of moving to a predominantly white community has taken its toll on people of color in Appleton. A majority of the known gang members in the area are African American, Hispanic, or Hmong. While there are many Caucasian gang members, most of the recent activity involves members of primarily Hmong gangs. Currently, it is estimated that there are at least 15 gangs active in the Appleton area. A substantial number of these gangs are Hmong, but they may also include members of other races. Some of the most active gangs in Appleton are multiracial.

There is considerable variation in the function, organization, and degree of criminal activity among Appleton’s gangs. Most are described as loosely organized, though others have a hierarchy with some form of written rules or constitution. A limited number of the gangs have ties to Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Appleton's gangs do not participate in the traditional activities of corporate gangs, like drug and weapon trafficking.

Area gangs also contribute to the criminal activity in the Fox Valley. The most common criminal activity of gang members is theft from vehicles, namely car stereos. Appleton police crime statistics report 476 counts of theft from vehicles in 1999, many of which are attributed to gangs. Another criminal activity committed by gang members is assault and battery. A majority of new gang initiates are “beat-in” by current gang members. Rarely do the beat-ins lead to criminal prosecutions, but recently there was a very violent beat-in involving one of the gangs. Several members were arrested due to the severity of the injuries. In addition, in the summer of 1999, there was a major fight between two local gangs that involved the use of metal pipes, sticks, and a crowbar. Hospital staff members vary in their estimates of youth violence injuries, but on average believe that they treat approximately six patients per month who are victims of youth violence, such as stabbings, beatings, or fist fights.

Although guns are not often used, many gang members possess weapons. Last year, police estimated that there were four to five drive-by shootings in the Appleton metro area, although no one was injured in these incidents. A recent trend in gang activity has been the use of “smash and dash” methods to obtain guns. Two incidents occurred in 1999 in which Appleton area gang members broke into sporting goods stores and stole large numbers of semi-automatic weapons. While in both cases arrests were made, many of the guns were not recovered.

On the surface, it would be easy to classify the youth involved as merely “wannabes.” However, the rise of violent incidents involving gangs suggests that they should be taken seriously in Appleton. “Wannabe” gangs are often the most violent because they feel a need to prove their worth.

Unlike their counterparts in urban areas, the teens in Appleton do not join gangs for protection. Many, particularly the racial minorities, join gangs for a sense of belonging in a community where they may not feel they belong. Gangs offer a sense of familiarity, security, and comfort, as well as the stability that some teens lack. Many come from troubled homes, some are described as at-risk youth, and others are struggling between cultures. Gang membership often provides the structure and feeling of acceptance that most teens desire.

Wake-up Call: The Shots Heard Around the Fox Vallely

Gangs, although disorganized, were first noticed in the Appleton area in the early 1990s. It was not until several years later, however, that the residents of the area began to acknowledge the presence of gangs in their community.

The events that occurred in May 1995 shattered the image that many area residents had painted of their community. Within a few days, four local teens were found dead as the result of gang violence. Members of the D-Mac Crew, a small local gang murdered a teen that apparently had mocked their gang and taken financial advantage of them through drug sales. The events that followed are somewhat unclear. Three members of the D-Mac crew may have entered a suicide pact out of fear of murder charges. Early one morning, the teens were found shot to death at Plamann Park in Appleton. The chronicle of events has been disputed, but this theory holds the most credibility with law enforcement officials. Although the gang’s leader, who is believed to have ordered the killing, and another member of the D-Mac crew who was involved in the murder have been imprisoned, many questions remain.

The deaths shocked the community. It was nearly impossible for residents to consider four violent deaths, much less a gang presence in the small city. Gangs were problems of large, urban areas, not a town like Appleton. With no real experience or exposure in dealing with gangs, many residents and officials denied the existence of gangs and treated the deaths as an isolated incident. Traditionally, any violence that could be considered gang-related was blamed on outsiders. This time, though, the perpetrators were all Appleton residents. Fortunately, there was acknowledgment of the problem by both the schools and the police department. The city has grown to become a proactive municipality in its fight against gangs.

Community Responses and Resources

The Appleton community has a multi-faceted approach to gang prevention, intervention, and suppression. Community resources include the public schools, the Appleton Police Department and the Hmong American Partnership.

Schools

The Appleton public schools experience problems that many other communities are facing. Students’ families are not always supportive of schooling, so students may not receive adequate support at home. Some parents are struggling with addiction; other parents work nights and rarely see their children. There are also parents who are new to this country, and some cannot communicate well with the schools. Other parents hold multiple jobs and have no time for teacher conferences.

High school students talk of frequent fights. No one denies that gangs are present, as are drugs and weapons, such as knives. A few students are on probation or in school on Huber privileges. These problems, however, are hardly unique to Appleton, but the Appleton Public Schools have taken a number of steps to reduce the level of youth violence in the schools.

While the Plamann Park incident served as a wake-up call to many about the realities of youth and gang violence in Appleton, the public schools had many prevention and intervention programs already in place. Appleton West’s Associate Principal Ron Schreier points to his strict attendance policy as a tool to curb both truancy and the problems associated with it, such as juvenile crime and academic failure. This policy, in place for fourteen years, involves careful monitoring of student attendance, and truants receive 6:30 a.m. detention. Students and school personnel alike view the attendance policy as a positive force in the school, conveying to students and parents that the school cares where students are throughout the school day. One student in his first year at West recalled that because his old school had not punished him for his truancy, he had skipped much of his freshman year. At Appleton West he was caught skipping class the first week of school, he said, and so had not done it since. He felt that the policy showed the school cared more about its students than his former school had.

The attendance policy at Appleton West reflects the school’s overarching belief that knowing the whereabouts, home life, and personal history of each student can prevent problems. The school’s staff makes it a priority to understand why a student is having trouble in school. The main result of this is extensive contact with parents. Parents must call if their child is absent, and must talk to the school secretary, not just leave a message on an answering machine. Furthermore, a student with discipline problems must call to inform his or her parent of the problem. If the problem occurred in class, the teacher also will call the parent and discuss the incident. Appleton West also keeps in close contact with the Outagamie Youth and Family Services social workers, as well as the courts and police.

Guidance counselors and other support staff, such as social workers and school psychologists, help students at all grade levels in the Appleton Public Schools who are having problems at school or at home. Counselors at East High pointed to the district’s use of elementary school guidance counselors as aiding in expanding the role of the counselor. Students become familiar with the office, and view the guidance staff as individuals who can help them through a variety of problems. Many students feel they can trust the counselors, and will speak with them about family issues, or inform them when a friend may be suicidal.

The district put together a “Safe Schools” policy, authored by school personnel and parents. Though rough drafts were already being written early last year, the policy took on a sense of immediacy in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings in April 1999. The brief policy, which was mailed to all the residents of the district, focuses on preventing violent incidents in schools through a concerted effort to improve the sense of community in the schools. The mass mailing further outlined steps that could be taken by parents, students, school personnel, and community members to prevent violence in schools. This emphasis on prevention is uncommon in school safety policies—most focus on crisis procedures and penalties for offenders. Ron Schreier and others on the committee felt that prevention was the key to safe schools as an obvious means of avoiding crises.

One means of prevention in place at several schools is a homeroom period or other time for students to discuss personal and emotional issues. At Appleton West, homeroom is a time to encourage class bonding, community building, and leadership training. Each month, homerooms take on a challenge, such as raising money for a charity group. Students take turns leading the projects. According to Ron Schreier, “Kids are much less likely to violate if they feel connected.” Einstein Middle School has recently instituted “Eagle Time”—a half-hour each week for students to meet in groups with staff and discuss issues affecting them in and out of school. Sometimes this period is dedicated to whole school assemblies on special topics, such as a recent performance by a Hmong-American on cultural understanding and the difficulties of growing up Hmong in America. More often, topics are assigned by staff for discussion in the groups. One week, for example, the topic was peer pressure. While some teachers at the school feel that Eagle Time is time that would be better spent on core subjects, others point to incidents such as the Columbine shootings as evidence that schools must work to get to know students and to make them feel connected to their school and peers.

Police

The police have a number of programs that work with different groups within the community. The programs allow them to be proactive in deterring criminal activity. In addition they are able to form trusting, positive relationships with the communities.

Police School Liaisons

While Appleton West’s attendance policy is unique to that school, other prevention and intervention programs are present in all of the schools. The Appleton Police Department (APD) has a very organized unit of police and school liaisons. Currently there is a liaison assigned to each middle and high school in the district. This past year, a pilot program was created in the elementary schools. The program was considered so successful that every school in the Appleton school district will have a liaison in the 2000-2001 school year.

The program has been beneficial because it allows the schools to concentrate on teaching, while the liaison can take care of the more serious disciplinary problems or illegal activity within the school. The liaison deals chiefly with at-risk students, such as truants, runaways, and juveniles on probation. Furthermore, all police school liaisons are trained as “sensitive crimes investigators” qualified to investigate crimes such as child abuse and sexual assault. When necessary, they may stop violent incidents and/or make arrests.

Although the duties of police school liaisons are diverse, they do not like to get involved in enforcing minor school rules (such as no running in the halls or no swearing). Day-to-day duties often involve monitoring students both before and after school and during lunch. The prevailing view is that the presence of a police officer helps keep the school environment safe and minimizes fights between students. By being in the school during the day (armed but in plain clothes), the officer has an opportunity to hear about potential fights or problems from students and staff and may be able to intervene and prevent conflict.

One of the greatest benefits of the liaison program is the opportunity it provides students and officers to get to know one another and build trusting relationships. Because the liaisons are accessible to students during the day, they can often be found engaging in conversation with students. One officer enjoys playing checkers with students during lunch, for example, which helps foster a positive relationship. A liaison can serve as a friend, a mentor, or as an adult role model to at-risk students.

The structure of the liaison program gives the liaisons from the grade schools through the high schools an opportunity to work together. They share information with each other about problems with individuals or between groups of students. By being informed, the liaisons are able to help prevent conflict.

The program also helps the police department do its job when school is not in session. Many of the liaisons monitor the downtown during the summer months, and because they are already familiar with the students and youth activity, they can foresee problems in the community. For example, they know which groups or gangs at the schools get along and which do not. Because of their history of working with many of these youth in schools, they are familiar with existing conflicts between groups.

This program is not designed to monitor or single out specific kids. Rather, it is a program that has been developed to insure the safety of all students and staff within a school, as well as intervene with at-risk students as early as possible. The liaisons can often be seen mentoring and forming important relationships with a variety of students, which benefits everyone.

Community Intervention Team

The Community Intervention Team (CIT) is a unit within the Appleton Police Department that gathers information on gang activity in the Fox Valley. It then provides this information to other officers with the aim of anticipating and preventing future criminal conduct. They also respond to incidents that appear to be gang related. Thus, the two-officer team tries to prevent as well as react to gang activity.

The CIT’s duty is to provide other units, like Narcotics, with information in order to help their investigation of criminal conduct. They can gather intelligence through any legal means, which may involve interviewing and speaking informally with known gang members and their associates. In addition, it may also mean CIT and other officers sharing personal observations. Officers monitor areas where gang members congregate. Police can obtain an immense amount of information through informal, nonconfrontational contacts on the street. Doing so allows them to establish a limited, but necessary, connection with some individuals.

The CIT documents and analyzes gang graffiti because they believe graffiti is one of the first signs of new gang activity in an area. Few people understand graffiti, but the CIT unit specializes in familiarizing itself with the complex drawings in order to monitor gang activity.

CIT officers also work closely with other agencies or groups, including the courts. They serve as expert witnesses in court on gang activity and help prepare presentence documents or assist other agencies in gang investigations. In addition, they often work with the probation and parole department regarding placement and conditions of release of individuals returning to the community, and they also help monitor released individuals. The CIT is also involved in educating the public on gang awareness.

The Hmong-American Partnership

Hmong refugees began coming to the United States in the late 1970s, but most did not arrive until the early to mid-1980s. The Hmong-American Partnership has been helping Hmong refugees in Outagamie County and neighboring communities for almost three decades. It offers a number of services such as career planning, legal assistance, parenting classes, and other support to youth and families. Referrals come from parents, schools, law enforcement officials, and social service agencies. The association receives money from the federal government to assist refugees, but once both parents are American citizens, the Partnership can no longer offer them services. Obtaining citizenship, however, does not mean that they have fully adapted to American culture.

Keeping Education among Youth for Success (KEYS) is a federally funded program that is aimed specifically at helping Southeast Asian youth refugees and their families. The goal is to promote academic achievement through collaboration on the part of students, families, the KEYS program, and other community services. Hmong youth feel stranded between Hmong and American cultures, which often creates a number of problems for them in school both academically and socially. The KEYS program offers tutoring and other educational workshops to help them with their schoolwork. KEYS also develops motivational and prevention activities for Hmong youth to foster greater self-respect and understanding among and between family members and other members of the community.

The generation gap between Hmong parents and youth often creates problems when families are adapting to American culture. Families who may be experiencing tension in raising children in two different cultures can get counseling through the KEYS program. The parenting program offered through KEYS helps parents learn about American culture and its differences from their own. Counselors also help parents and children incorporate positive aspects of both cultures. A critical role of the counselor is to help parents and children understand and accept differences in cultural norms.

The traditional Hmong parenting style is quite different from that of mainstream Americans. For example, Hmong parents do not show a lot of outward emotion. They believe that youth will automatically respect their elders and assume kids will behave without discipline. Many parents work multiple jobs and have little time to talk to their kids and spend time with them. According to Xiong, Hmong parents need to continue to foster bonds with their children and get involved with them and their school.

 

Looking Ahead

Appleton has not eliminated gangs, yet the efforts of the community have not been fruitless. As was noted, the police school liaisons have been so successful that, by next year, each school will have an officer filling that role. The officers who do this work provide a vital link between students and the police department. While making schools safer for everyone, the liaisons provide guidance to students who may be headed down the wrong path. Positive relationships with these students are critical as a preventive measure for their safety as well as that of the community.

The Community Intervention Team has changed the way that the community approaches gang activity. While CIT efforts often can be characterized as gang suppression, they also offer intervention and prevention services. These officers investigate suspected gang activity, questionable incidents, and talk to potential gang members. They coordinate efforts with other agencies in the area to assure the most accurate information. In addition to investigating potential gang activity, CIT also maintains a database of convicted, known, and suspected gang members in the area.

Our discussion does not include all programs and services offered to prevent, intervene, or suppress gang activity and youth violence in Appleton. We have, however, highlighted some of the key players. While the efforts of this community are to be commended, they are not immune to the challenges of suppressing and preventing gang activity and youth violence. Violent crime has increased 47 percent in the last year in Appleton, and there has been a large increase in gang related violence. With such a comprehensive approach to resolving gangs and youth violence, why is this happening?

The reasons youth join gangs are complex. Many come from troubled homes or abusive relationships, find substance abuse common among people they know, and have a significant number of unmet needs. No single solution can solve these many problems. The experience of Hmong teens in Appleton, however, is unique. Hmong youth who join gangs often come from stable, two-parent homes. Their struggle comes in large part from living in two very different cultures and trying to reconcile those differences. Gangs provide a sense of acceptance and understanding since most members are experiencing similar difficulties.

Many of Appleton’s residents suffer from a lack of information about Hmong culture. This lack of information results in inadequate resources, which are necessary to meet the needs of the Hmong community. Educating the community about Hmong culture may not only break down the barriers that exist, it may also make services more accessible to the Hmong. If the community can assist Hmong teens with this transition, much of Appleton’s gang activity can be eliminated. The Appleton Police Department has created a community liaison position to aid in the education. This liaison functions as an intermediary for the police department and the Hmong, Latino, and African-American residents. The community liaison is an integral link to eliminating cultural barriers between these populations.

A comprehensive approach is the only way to successfully combat gangs and youth violence in a community. Appleton is building the foundation for that approach. By keeping all parties involved and informed, the community is working toward eliminating youth violence and gangs from the area.