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Why They Choose Gangs

Baltimore Afro American, News Feature, Sean Yoes Posted: Mar 29, 2007

On Aug. 10, 2006 former principal David Heiber summoned Baltimore City Police to his home to report a burglary. However, they reported back to Heiber that there was a warrant for his arrest connected to several charges including violation of an ex-parte, which carries a stipulation of no bail.

So, for 35 days from Aug. 10 to Sept. 14, Heiber was caught up within the system that thousands of others had been caught up in, the infamous Baltimore City Detention Center-Central Booking.

As harrowing as the bowels of "the bookins" can be, Heiber's experience was perhaps even more disturbing for a seemingly unique reason.

"I ran into over 20 of my former students, easily over 20 and mind you I was in a confined area. It's not like I had free run of Central Booking," said Heiber.

The reaction of his former students was probably predictable. "`Damn, what are you doing in here Mr. Heiber,'" he said with a laugh. "But, one thing I've always told my students is that I'm one accusation, I'm one traffic stop away from being behind bars," he continued.

Another somewhat predictable, yet more insidious response Heiber got from his former students he encountered at Central Booking was, "If they're locking you up, what's our chances?"

For more than a month Heiber was confronted with the catastrophic failures of the Baltimore City Public School system in ways he had never experienced, even at the perpetually troubled Thurgood Marshall Middle School in East Baltimore (Thurgood Marshall Middle was scheduled to be closed this year due in large part to its history of violence, but the decision to close the school has been delayed).

"The failure of the Baltimore City Public School system is the direct profit of the correction system, whether it's monetary profit or just a supply of human capital," observed Heiber. But, 35 days in Central Booking also allowed Heiber to observe the nexus between public school failure and Baltimore's expansive gang culture.

"We had many conversations and they would typically be like...`I didn't get the skills I needed. Hustlin' was an easier way. To protect myself in hustlin' I got with this gang. Not being affiliated with a gang is not just lonely --it's dangerous,'" explained Heiber.

As a former assistant principal of one of the most volatile middle schools in the city and spending more than a month at the notorious Central Booking, Heiber gained rare insight into the young Black men who transition between the school system and the prison system.

"In school and in your neighborhood you're in junior college or you're an undergrad (in gang culture). You go to prison and that's grad school and now you come back out on the street and you're a professor...you're a recruiter for the gangs. The gangs control, that's the fact of the matter," said Heiber. "We have to look at what the gangs provide. We can't protect them, we honestly don't protect them in the schools," continued Heiber.

So, what is going on in the schools? What are administrators and teachers doing to combat the growing scourge of gang influence on the children of the Baltimore City Public Schools? Heiber paints a picture of a system paralyzed in a perpetual state of denial.

"We're under the guise that we know what's going on, we as administrators, and we really don't know. We go under the assumption, `well, I'm from Baltimore and I know what's going on.' Well, that's not true," said Heiber.

"The phenomena are changing too quickly and too drastically for us to really understand. Unless you have not lived in the experience you are not an expert in it. Our arrogance leads us to believe that we are experts," added Heiber.
But, even David Heiber, incarcerated as a teen and back in the system 10 years later as an adult doesn't presume he fully understands the reality of Baltimore streets for the city's young people.

"I didn't know my students as well as I thought-with my experience of being locked up before when I was 18-years old...I really thought that had given me understanding of what our students were going through. But, I realized that's not the case. It (the Central Booking experience) taught me that we don't know," concluded Heiber.

We underestimate gang culture and its allure amongst young people at our peril.

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