High School Students Feel Gang Members' Presence

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Listen to Morgan Mitchell, a 9th-grader at Berkeley High School, as she speaks out about gang-like groups called "squads" in her high school. As a former member of a squad, she weighs the benefits and problems with these prevalent high school cliques.

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A notebook at Berkeley High School with the marking H2O may not be a student's chemistry notes but rather a gang symbol.

Police, students and school officials disagree on the extent of this activity at the high school, which varies from violent gangs to cliques of people with names and hand signs, called "squads."

The city of Berkeley has 12 to 20 gang-related crimes every year, said Berkeley police Sgt. Mary Kusmiss.

"It's not something that the community talks about very often until perhaps there is a crime associated with gang activity," Kusmiss said. "But there has been gang activity in Berkeley."

The most prominent gang in Berkeley is West Side Berkeley, a Latino gang affiliated with the larger prison gang Nortenos. Police suspect about a dozen Berkeley High School students are members of this gang, Kusmiss said.

Another gang with around a dozen local student members is H2O Front, a black West Berkeley gang named for its location near the Berkeley Waterfront, said Berkeley police Sgt. Patricia Delaluna, an expert on gangs.

Students involved with these gangs do not usually commit gang-related crimes on campus, Kusmiss said.

"Students from other schools that are from rival gangs will come, generally during lunch hours or after school, but not on school grounds," Kusmiss said.

Gang-related crimes include robberies, drug-dealing, fights and graffiti tagging the school's campus, Kusmiss said.

Laura Menard, a community activist and parent of a former high school student said tagging that included certain numbers could signal gang activity.

The group associated with Nortenos uses the number 14 because N is the 14th letter of the alphabet. Another group associated with the Mexican Mafia uses the number 13, following the same style.

"You'll see graffiti around town of a number 13 and then see it crossed out with 14 over it, which is counter-graffiti and means they've been in a dispute over territory," Menard said.

High-schoolers are often recruited to join gangs when they first enter the ninth grade, Delaluna said. Recruitment sometimes involves targeting family members of current gang members, she said.

However, most students do not feel threatened by "squads," which are more prevalent on campus than organized gangs, Delaluna said.

"It's harmful to each other because they battle, but to regular citizens it's not harmful," said Cervon Rogers, a Berkeley High School freshman.

Some cliques are based solely on neighborhoods, but students say they have heard rumors of groups that require initiation.

"Sometimes people say you have to beat somebody up, rob a store, rob a bank, do something big to make them see the power that you have," said Morgan Mitchell, a freshman who used to be in an about 10-member squad called Fuck Your Drama.

But Mitchell said her squad did not require initiation and is not violent.

"It was nothing too big, more of just a MySpace and picture thing," she said. "It was just a thing you talked about with your friends."

Other gang activity is more serious. Berkeley High School alumnus Netza Romera said his friend, who was a West Side Berkeley member at Berkeley High, was shot and killed at a party in Oakland in 2006.

"After having my friend get shot in a drive-by, I knew I had to do something about the gang situation in Berkeley," Romera said.

Romera became a youth organizer and founder of Berkeley United Youth in Action, a youth group affiliated with Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action.

Barry Krisberg, president of Oakland-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency, said offering after-school programs is a good solution.

"Berkeley has a lot of after-school programs for very young students but not for teenagers," Krisberg said.

Even though only a small percentage of students are involved in gangs, their presence is felt, Delalauna said.

"The kids know better than anybody who's involved," she said.


Selina MacLaren covers crime. Contact her at [email protected]

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