AUSTELL — Gang activity is on the rise in Cobb County, according to Sharon Mashburn, probation supervisor with the Cobb Juvenile Court’s Gang Suppression Program.
“We’re seeing gang activity pick up, and it’s not just in this district, it’s in the whole entire county,” she said, speaking at a town hall meeting held by Commissioner Lisa Cupid Tuesday night. “We’re seeing a lot of kids coming in from Fulton County. They’re coming into our county and they’re trying to recruit. We’re a thriving county, so they’re going to come where they’re going to find other people.”
District Attorney Vic Reynolds said gangs are present in every high school in the county, and their activities contribute to other types of crime.
“We know that gang activity is prevalent in Cobb County, and that it is a major factor in every type of crime, including violent crimes, drug distribution and theft,” Reynolds said. “As an example, in many car break-ins, also known as entering autos, thieves are specifically looking for firearms, and those investigations often reveal gang connections.”
Though Mashburn acknowledged the increase in gang crime, she asked the residents not to be too concerned.
“Please don’t think that this gang issue is overpowering,” she said. “We don’t want you to be scared. We want you to know that we’re working on this, that this is something that is very important to us.”
Mashburn said the juvenile court is working with schools, police and fire departments to help intervene in the lives of gang members and associates. She highlighted several programs under the court designed to fight gangs, including the state’s only gang suppression unit.
That unit keeps an eye on gang members or kids at risk of becoming gang members, sometimes using house arrest, tracking ankle bands and social media monitoring.
“We try to do everything we can to prevent that child from hanging out with those negative peers, whether they’re other children or whether they’re adults,” she said. “Please understand that you have adults that will recruit children to commit crimes, and we have to stop that.”
Mashburn stressed that a child does not have to be in trouble to use juvenile court resources.
“We can do referrals. We can do assessments. We can get you pointed in the right direction,” she said. “But people don’t know we’re there. And people don’t want to come to court because they don’t want their kid to be involved in court. It’s understandable.”
Mashburn said young people will not get a criminal record if a parent simply calls with a concern, and added that the court has ways of getting criminal charges expunged after the fact.
“We have had kids come in for burglaries that are high-ranking military officials now,” she said.
Speaking after the meeting, Cupid said she hopes parents learn they can take advantage of the services the juvenile court provides as a way to prevent their children from going into a life of crime.
“I hope people take advantage of the resources that are available through the courts,” Cupid said. “I also like the fact that parents can come to them proactively, they don’t have to wait until their children are caught up in the legal system. If they feel like something is off, help is still available before they go down that path.”
Mashburn said parents should be concerned if they notice a change in their kids’ behavior. She also highly recommended looking through their phone.
“Ninety percent of the kids who come in that have any kind of gang activity, they didn’t learn it at home,” she said. “They probably learned it on their phone that you’re paying for. They are getting it off their computer, off of YouTube. … You need to check your kid’s phone. You pay the bill. It’s really your phone. So if they say ‘My child won’t tell me the password.’ That’s a problem. Take the phone away.”
She suggested parents randomly confiscate the phone for inspection and warned of apps that may disguise improper activity.
She said there are several apps that look like calculator apps, but when you enter a specific code into the calculator, it unlocks hidden files that are inaccessible any other way. She recommended parents check the app store to be able to recognize such programs or call the juvenile court for help.
Mashburn said people who see something suspicious in their neighborhood should call 911 right away, but she said not to jump to conclusions about people if they are wearing all one color or have unusual tattoos. She said experts know it is a long and involved process to determine whether a young person is affiliated with a gang.
To parents and other adults who want to help keep kids out of gangs, Mashburn said to look for mentoring opportunities. She said Cobb County Police already have programs such as the Police Athletic League where officers offer guidance to vulnerable youth, but a need still remains.
“Just about every mentoring agency we’ve ever partnered with, as soon as we send the referral, as soon as they see my name and then ‘gang unit,’ they send a message back and say, ‘No thank you. Do you have another child?’” Mashburn said. “Their idea is that I’m going to take this kid and mentor this kid and they are going to hit me on the head and carjack me, and I’m going to be laying dead somewhere and they’re going to be driving my car.”
But Mashburn said that is not right. She said many of these kids are simply in need of stability and positive role models. She told a story about several kids who benefited greatly from participating in a Police Athletic League basketball program.
“One night, I had four kids on probation, three with ankle monitors on, and my son is on the basketball team with them, and we’re out there,” she said. “People are like ‘Why would you put your own child out there?’ Because I’m with these kids. I’m with these families, and I know, at the end of the day, you’re still dealing with a child.”