If anyone knows gangs, it’s Linda Schmidt. She has spent the last two decades immersed in gang issues—first, leading a gang prevention program for a non-profit agency for nine years, then spearheading gang awareness initiatives as a community outreach specialist in our Cleveland and Cincinnati offices for the next 11 years. During that time Linda has ridden in patrol cars with police officers through gang-infested neighborhoods; worked with gang members in courts, schools, and prisons; and provided all kinds of training for law enforcement officers, educators, and community groups. Sadly for us a the FBI, Linda is retiring at the end of this month. Before she goes, we asked her to share some of the knowledge she has gained over the years on gangs.
Q: How did you learn so much about gangs?
A: Many ways, but mostly by going into the schools and meeting with the teachers and kids. I listened to what the gang members, teachers, and other young people had to say and then watched closely to determine what was true. I learned how to talk to these kids, to read their graffiti, and to understand their mentality. You really have to make an effort to get inside their world.
Q: What signs can help warn parents that their kids are involved in gangs?
A: Watch for changes in your child’s personality, grades, clothing, and friends. Has your son or daughter been tattooed? Or injured—because boys are often beaten and girls raped as part of their initiation into a gang. You also have the right to go into your child’s room and check for contraband. Discuss this with them. It’s always good to let them know you’re doing your job as a parent. If you suspect that your child has joined or is thinking of joining a gang, talk to them. Stay calm and respond without shock and fear no matter what they say. This will let them know that they can keep talking to you.
Q: Any words of advice on how to steer young people away from gangs?
A: Yes, two things. First, one of the attractions of a gang is its strict discipline. With that discipline comes structure and limits and a sense of security and belonging. That’s what we need to offer to our young people as well—just in a positive way. We can’t be afraid, as parents and teachers, to provide structure and discipline to our children and students. I think the government can help by delivering funded programs that our young people can turn to—especially when there are problems at home—to feel safe and to belong. These programs should be 24/7, just like the gangs are. Second, on a more general level, all of us—parents, educators, community leaders, elected officials, law enforcement—need constant education about gangs and gang trends. Gangs are forever changing—we need to keep up.
Q: Any memorable experiences during your career?
A: There are many, but a recent one stands out. I got a phone call from a former gang member I had met in one of my programs who wanted to let me know how she was doing. Turns out, she became a mom and a paralegal and is going back to school to get her degree in criminal justice. To hear that really makes it all worthwhile.