With concerns about a budding gang culture looming, a Carroll County task force plans to assess the threat and form strategies to combat the problem.
Using a $15,000 grant from the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, a group of about 35 local officials - including representatives from law enforcement, mental health and recreation agencies as well as the school system - will gauge the community's concerns and knowledge about gangs and what can be done to prevent gangs from taking root.
"We can tell the whole story by taking this comprehensive view," said Mary M. Scholz, administrator of Carroll County's Local Management Board, who is coordinating the task force. "We'll be looking at it through the eyes of every discipline involved."
Other agencies that have representatives on the task force include the state's attorney's office, the sheriff's office, local police departments and Junction, Inc., a substance abuse prevention and treatment agency, Scholz said.
The group's first meeting is scheduled for Sept. 8 at 9:30 a.m. at the North Carroll Senior and Community Center in Hampstead, she said. After that meeting, the task force is expected to launch an anonymous online survey to gauge community concern and awareness about gangs.
If a resident would like to participate in the survey, but doesn't have computer access, he or she can use computers at local libraries, Scholz said.
"This is a community effort," she said. "We'll get to have more of a feel if there is a gang issue. [But] more importantly, we'll get to see this through the eyes of community members, which is very valuable information."
After the online survey, which will be available for several weeks this fall, is completed, the task force will schedule a second meeting - probably mid- to late- October - to review the results and devise prevention, intervention and suppression strategies, Scholz said.
"After that data is analyzed, we'll go to the task force and say, 'This is what the community is saying,'" she said. "Through this process, we'll learn more about our community, but it also lays the groundwork to apply for additional funding" to pay for gang prevention efforts.
She said the task force must submit a report on its findings to the governor's office by Nov. 15. "This is one assessment we can use," she said. "We'll be able to say, 'we need XYZ to suppress gangs.'"
Scholz said the county received the grant for its gang assessment after the county's three commissioners attended a meeting and were encouraged to seek the state funding.
She said the commissioners wanted to know more about the county's gang problem and how the community can address it or stay ahead of growing concerns.
"The state's attorney's office and police have data that indicate we do have a problem," she said. "Law enforcement is typically looking at this issue from a point of suppressing it. We're taking it out to a wider range of people."
Scholz said the hope is that by including a broader perspective of the community, the task force can come up with answers to such questions as, "What do kids have to have happen to stay out of gangs?"
Senior Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer L. Darby, who sits on the task force, said, "Everyone is coming to the table with ideas about how Carroll County needs to address the gang problem."
For the county to be eligible to apply for the state grant, it had to acknowledge it had a gang problem or a potential one, Darby said.
"We do have gang involvement in Carroll County, as does pretty much every county in the state," she said. "It's not just an inner-city problem anymore."