Schools label Kids gang members, but they’re not

Not in gang

(Photo by Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette) (L-R) Mario Avila Jr., Mario Avila Sr. and Enrique Avila pose for a photo in the livingroom of their home on Spring Valley Drive in Gastonia Wednesday afternoon, February 27, 2013.

Mario and Enrique Avila’s names aren’t in a gang database.

But other teenagers could be on the statewide gang members list used by law enforcement if their school systems use gang contracts and share the names of those students with police.

Gaston County Schools used gang contracts as a way of identifying students suspected to be in gangs for four years, sharing the names of students who signed gang contracts with Gaston County Police.

Names of gang members go into the N.C. GangNET database, which is designed to track information on individual gang members.

It’s like being on the federal “no fly list,” said Raul Pinto, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.

A person might not know he’s on the list until he tries to board a plane. Pinto fears the same thing might happen to young people police suspect are in a gang because of the contracts formerly in place at Gaston County Schools and being used in other school districts.

The GangNET database requires validation before someone’s information goes into the system, according to Tammy Martin, spokeswoman for the Governor’s Crime Commission. Someone must meet several gang-related criteria, like having a gang tattoo, admitting to being in a gang or using gang hand signs or lingo.

Labeled and signed

Mario and Enrique Avila were two of 252 students tagged as gang members by school administration from 2008-12.

Mario Avila was a sophomore at Bessemer City High when a school official reported he flashed what looked like a gang sign.

His younger brother, Enrique Avila, was a sixth-grader at Bessemer City Middle when he was flagged as a gang member for wearing a rosary, he and his parents said. The Avilas are Catholic.

At first, school officials accused the Avila brothers of being in rival gangs, but then changed Enrique’s suspected gang affiliation to match that of his brother.

Both students say they were intimidated into signing gang contracts after being called into their school’s office. The brothers were both suspended. They felt frustrated and hurt being labeled as gang members without any real proof.

Father Mario Avila said he didn’t understand the documents he signed when school officials asked for parents to sign off on the gang contracts for each son. He was asked to come to the school’s office to sign the paperwork. He said the gang contracts weren’t translated into Spanish so he could understand what he was signing. Avila felt like he had no choice but to sign the contracts if he wanted his children to remain in the school system. The other families shared similar stories of accusations and intimidation.

Fighting back

The Avilas and at least two other families filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

They alleged the district discriminated against their children because of their origins, that the district didn’t provide adequate translation and interpretation services, and that the district did not provide a suitable program for Spanish-speaking students. All of the families that filed complaints were Latinos who spoke Spanish.

The ACLU of North Carolina and the North Carolina Justice Center also got involved to address what they considered troubling issues that violated the students’ rights — how they were questioned, how school officials determined they belonged to a gang and how parents were notified.

Last semester, the families received word from the Office of Civil Rights that their complaints had been closed. Gaston County Schools agreed to make changes to its English as a second language services and programs.

Gaston County Schools stopped using gang contracts when the 2012-13 school years started. All previously signed contracts were removed from student files, according to a letter Kristi Harris, an attorney with the Office for Civil Rights, sent to Byron Martinez.

Martinez helped the local families file their complaints and acted as a liaison with school system investigators. He contacted the ACLU and N.C. Justice Center to get more help for the families fighting to get their children’s names cleared from any suspicion of gang activity.

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