BY KRYSTYN SCHMERBECK – “In the first hour of the day, teens [today] process more information than we processed in a whole day,” Cpl. Mike Rudinski said at a March 22 gang information meeting for Hyattsville residents. Recognizing this massive cultural shift is critical to understanding teens, he said.

Rudinski, a Hyattsville police officer, also serves on the Prince George’s countywide gang task force and is a former president of the Maryland Association of School Resource Officers. As the school resource officer at Northwestern High School, he sees firsthand the impact of technological advances on teen gang culture. Texting, social networking, e-mail, and other communication avenues paved by the Internet are known to be possible means of bullying. Rudinski said that in his experience youth join gangs for protection; add to this the impact of cyber-bullying, and the need for protection is dramatically increased.

Text messaging is a quick and covert way to communicate to large groups without being overheard – or, in some cases, to alert authorities to potentially dangerous situations. Although texting in school is prohibited, text messages are used to publicize “skipping parties” or other off-campus activities.

Moreover, teen truancy can be connected with gang formation or activities. At Northwestern High School, the nearby county library is a popular destination when skipping school, primarily because some social networking sites blocked on school computers are not blocked on the library’s system. University Town Center and The Mall at Prince Georges also give students a reason to skip.

Sgt. Chris Purvis, a member of the HPD Community Action Team, noted that some businesses, driven by the almighty dollar, are not motivated to keep skipping teens (and their money) away. But in most cases, he said, businesses and local institutions work with the Hyattsville police to manage the truancy problem. Members of the Community Action Team are called to the library when students are spotted there during school hours. At the Mall at Prince Georges, the policy calls for security officers to both ask students to leave and alert their schools about their whereabouts, said General Manager Henry Watford.

At the meeting, Rudinski covered a wide variety of additional topics, including national gangs, gang structure (including how gangs make money as well as how members rise in the ranks), generational gangs (in which parents, children and other family members belong to the same gang) and gang connections in other parts of society (such as the military and professional sports).

Educating the community is a key part of “managing” gang activity, as Rudinski calls it. To that end, the police Community Action Team offers these presentations to a variety of groups; next month, for example, the U.S. Secret Service is on the schedule. Anyone in Hyattsville may request this service for a group or association by calling Purvis at 301.985.5066.

Warning signs:
Parents should look out for:

  • a tendency to wear a certain color or logo
  • designs or words repeated in notebooks
  • use of odd hand signals to communicate with friends
  • unexplained physical injuries
  • extra cash or other expensive items
  • anti-social behaviors, such as withdrawing from the family, unexplained and repeated absences from school, and consistent rule breaking

Parents can respond by:

  • holding youth accountable for their time and their money
  • setting limits and boundaries
  • encouraging good study habits and emphasizing the importance of a good education
  • being involved in their children’s school and knowing their children’s friends and their parents