In a computer-age version of “West Side Story,” rival gang members recently battled in the streets of Garland, Texas, in a skirmish organized online. Experts in gang activity say gang members increasingly are turning to the internet to communicate with each other and plan their activities–and some of these conversations could be taking place on school computers.

Nearly three dozen people, including 27 high school students, were arrested in mid-May after being indicted in connection with a March 3 brawl in Garland, a Dallas suburb. Several people were injured, including one person who suffered a broken arm.

“Gangs already have their own alphabet, their own language, their own hand signals, so why not use the internet?” said Tod Burke, a criminal justice professor at Radford University in Virginia. “Is this case unusual? Yes. But what I’m afraid is going to happen, this is probably just the beginning of it.”

The gangs traded insults in a profanity-laced chat room, then decided to fight, setting the time and the place over the internet, Garland police officer Joe Harn said.

In the Garland fight, gang members battled with more old-fashioned weapons–fists, baseball bats, and shovels, authorities said.

Detectives used the chat room to help find suspects.

“For the most part, there’s nothing but cursing on it. Some of them actually signed in with their true names, so that helped us identify people,” Harn said.

A videotape made by one of the participants also helped investigators identify those in the brawl.

It is relatively common for gangs to use the internet to threaten and challenge rivals, said Jared Lewis, director of Know Gangs, a Wisconsin-based organization that educates police and the public about gangs.

“This is the first time I’ve heard where you’ve had a fight result, where the gangs actually met,” Lewis said. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that it’s happened. It’s just the scale that does surprise me.”

Lewis said that increased use of the internet by gangs is fueled in part by chat rooms and bulletin boards on gangsta rap artists’ web sites.

Though Harn said local police have no way of telling whether the suspects used home or school computers to organize the skirmish, Lewis–a former police officer himself–said the pervasiveness of internet access in the nation’s schools makes school computer labs a likely place for young gang members to congregate online.

Because most gang members come from poor homes, Lewis said, the only time many of them have access to the kinds of virtual forums and message boards used to spread the word about the Garland altercation–and others like it–is during school.

To curb use of the internet to promote gang activity, Lewis recommended that school officials program their filtering software to restrict access to online chat rooms and virtual message boards, or any other type of communication that is not deemed necessary for educational use.

Teachers also should get to know the personal habits of their students, he said. If a student is suspected of having gang ties, educators should pay close attention to his or her online habits, monitoring the student’s internet use closely to make sure he or she is not engaging in the same kind of online taunting and organizing that resulted in the melee in Texas.

“It’s not the gun, it’s the person behind the gun,” Lewis said: Schools need to know what their students are doing online.

Gang-intelligence officers in Garland, a suburb of more than 200,000, said they plan to pay more attention to internet chat sites now.

Links:

Know Gangs
http://www.knowgangs.com