No gangs at Wilson, authorities now agree

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Monday, March 2, 2009
— Janesville police read in the paper last week that Wilson Elementary School has a gang problem.

It was news to them.

The topic came up at a Janesville School Board meeting Feb. 24. The administration was telling the school board it needed an extra teacher, just for the rest of the school year, to deal with high enrollment and special problems in the fifth grade.

Among those special problems was a growing gang presence.

Wilson Principal Becky Bicha said some groups of kids had to be separated, that gang graffiti was proliferating in the bathrooms, and the school had brought in extra help to keep the peace as school let out.

But police say they don't think gangs have gained a foothold at Wilson. They had a meeting with school officials last week to iron out their differences.

"I think, after our conversation, we are all on same page," Superintendent Karen Schulte said this morning.

"I think the sticking point is: Is it gang-related? I would say that as a school staff, we can't say that," Schulte said. "That's a police matter."

Schulte said Wilson has definitely seen gang-related signs, but she agrees with police those signs don't mean actual gang activity.

"Some of the kids at Wilson School are emulating things they see out in the community, the graffiti—and there has been a lot of graffiti out in the community that police say is gang-related—and the kids are bringing that in. They think it's cool," Schulte said.

And kids have used it to frighten other kids, Schulte added.

There was one instance of a child wearing a T-shirt with a gang sign on it, and when the parent was called in, the parent tore up the shirt, Janesville police Deputy Chief Steve Kopp said. But as far as police are concerned, the activity is not gang-related.

Any graffiti officers have seen seems to be copycat, Kopp said.

"I think what's happening is some of these students are emulating, maybe, what they see in their neighborhood or elsewhere in the community and copying these types of things, but there's no indication that there's any gang presence at Wilson," Kopp said.

Janesville police have made a point of cracking down on graffiti and other signs of gang activity in the middle and high schools over the past year, and they've sent officers to get trained in gang abatement.

The term "wannabe" implies that someone is trying to get into gang, Kopp said, adding: "These are just kids who are mimicking things they see in other places, and they're probably not even aware of the meaning of what they're doing."

Wilson has seen a spike in problem behaviors, Kopp acknowledged. Police have responded to Wilson school 17 times since Jan. 1.

In some cases, "we were responding to disruptions in the classroom or elsewhere in school, and we have referred some kids to juvenile court, based on either the severity of behavior or because it's a habitual thing," Kopp said.

Schulte said she defers to police when it comes to identifying gangs.

"I don't say something's gang-related unless an officer or somebody from the police department says it's gang-related," Schulte said, because she does not have the specialized training the police have.

The police officers assigned to Edison and Franklin middle schools have been visiting Wilson over the past two weeks to help with the problems, but the district is not hoping to get an officer permanently assigned to Wilson, Schulte said.

A police officer was stationed at Wilson for several years, but that ended with a police department reorganization under former Chief Neil Mahan.

Last updated: 10:00 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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