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Specialist would help fight gang violence

The Sheriff's Office will ask the County Commission to create a gang education specialist position to educate middle schoolers.

Published July 26, 2005

BROOKSVILLE - The Hernando County Sheriff's Office is looking to educate middle schoolers on the dangers of joining gangs.

Today, sheriff's Maj. Royce Decker will ask the Hernando County Commission for approval to create a gang education specialist by using a $76,000 federal grant. The position would be filled by a sworn officer who would teach at the county's four middle schools and the new Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics.

If the county approves the Sheriff's Office plan, the new educator would start on Oct. 1. The officer would teach gang resistance and drug prevention.

The program would use the federal Bureau of Justice Assistances' G.R.E.A.T. middle school curriculum - it stands for Gang Resistance Education and Training - which is oriented toward sixth- and seventh-graders.

Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent recently said that is a key age to catch kids who might be exposed to gang influences.

Said Decker, "You want to get these kids at an early age, before they're influenced as a peer group."

The curriculum, Decker said, "encompasses the relationship between gangs, violence, drugs and crime." It includes tips on resisting peer pressure, managing anger and resolving conflicts without violence.

Recent local headlines have focused on concerns about young adults joining the Folk Nation alliance of Chicago, though sheriff's officials have said they have not seen any significant rise in confirmed gang activity.

"There are sporadic indications of loosely organized gangs or wannabes," sheriff's spokeswoman Deputy Donna Black said earlier this month. "Individuals occasionally say they belong to a particular gang," she said, "but authorities cannot verify their membership."

In January, Christopher Heisler of Spring Hill was arrested on charges of gang recruiting and child abuse after he was accused of carving gang symbols into the flesh of three 13-year-olds. Those charges were later dropped after investigators determined that the teens were willing participants.

Weeks after Heisler's arrest, Kevin Demkowski, 28, of Spring Hill was arrested after being accused of trying to recruit teens to the Folk Nation alliance and encouraging them to burglarize a home. His case is pending.

Earlier this month, at a party in Spring Hill, three men were accused of carving a pitchfork into the chest of a 21-year-old man, creating wounds so deep that muscle tissue was visible, sheriff's officials said. Robert Dalton, 19, and Donald Strickland, 20, both of Spring Hill, were arrested and charged as principals to aggravated battery.

A third suspect, Joe Maher, a 19-year-old with no known address, was being sought by the Sheriff's Office for allegedly carving one of Folk Nation's insignias into John Wease's chest.

The G.R.E.A.T. program's goal is to "prevent youth crime, violence, and gang involvement while developing a positive relationship among law enforcement, families, and our young people to create safer communities."

The middle school curriculum consists of 13 lessons, each 45 to 60 minutes long, taught in sequential order.

It was evaluated over a five-year stretch beginning in 1995. Students who had completed the training showed lower levels of victimization, more negative views about gangs, more favorable attitudes about police, a reduction in risk-seeking behaviors and increased association with peers involved in positive social activities.

--Rick Gershman can be reached at 352 754-6117 or

[Last modified July 26, 2005, 01:15:21]

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