Students are out of survey on gangs

Durham leaders take different tack

Staff WriterMay 18, 2007 

— Middle school students won't be answering a survey about gang influences in their lives, but Durham Public Schools officials are offering other ways to assist a local gang study.

The city and county paid $65,000 for the broad study, and they hoped it would include direct responses from students.

But school leaders balked, saying the survey results could damage the reputations of certain schools by branding them as centers of gang activity.

After months of debate, city, county and school leaders decided this week that the hired researchers would interview school resource officers, guidance counselors and social workers to find out about gangs and kids.

"They're in the trenches in the schools every day," said Ellen Reckhow, chairwoman of the Durham County Board of Commissioners.

"They should be able to give solid information about any gang activity."

Deborah Lamm Weisel and Buddy Howell, two gang experts hired to conduct the study, expressed concern that their results would be compromised if they couldn't get first-person accounts from students.

City and county leaders also worried that the researchers wouldn't live up to their contract if they didn't deliver student responses. The study is aimed at quantifying the area's gang problem as well as finding out how gangs recruit and operate.

But a review of the contract showed Weisel and Howell promised either surveys or focus groups in middle schools.

Interviews with the officers and counselors constitute focus groups.

Two recent studies conducted in the schools also might yield useful information, said Minnie Forte-Brown, school board chairwoman.

A customer satisfaction survey was completed in April, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed Durham middle and high school students about at-risk behaviors.

Though neither study specifically addresses gang activity, the documents can give a sense of how many students could be lured into a gang.

"We're looking at disconnected youth," Forte-Brown said.

Results of the two surveys are still being compiled but should be ready by summer, when Weisel and Howell are to give their full report.

Forte-Brown called the end result of the long discussion "a win-win."

"It lets you know you can have a conflict but you can come away with a workable solution," she said.

Staff writer Matt Dees can be reached at 956-2433 or matt.dees@newsobserver.com.

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