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DEATH IN THE STREETS: Death haunts schools living with gangs

The gang violence that took the life of a Campus Magnet High School freshman two weeks ago has been the result of a ongoing problem that southeast Queens teenagers say is a part of their everyday life.

Friends of Kevin Miller say they see gang members walk through the hallways of their high schools and streets wearing their groups colors, making signs and sometimes packing weapons.

“There’s nothing we can do to stop it,” said Victoria Washington, 14, who attends the Jump Start Academy at John Adams High School.

Despite the hopelessness felt by Kevin’s’s peers, community leaders say with the right amount of work from parents, elected officials and the teens themselves, the gang problem can be curbed.

Nnonso Ekwegbalu, 16, of Springfield Gardens, and Gregory Calas, 18, of St. Albans, have been arrested and charged with Miller’s death. The two teens are alleged members of the Crips gang and were fighting with rival members of the Bloods gang at the corner of Linden and Springfield boulevards on the afternoon of Oct. 9, according to investigators.

During the fight, Ekwegbalu and Calas opened fire at their unarmed rivals, but missed them, fatally struck Kevin in the head and hit the leg of another teen., the Queens district attorney said.

Donna Clopton, president of the 103rd Precinct Community Council, said intimidation and fear are the driving forces behind the growth of gangs in southeast Queens. Gang members strong-arm their way to get more numbers in their faction, using threats of violence against younger students, according to Clopton.

“You have certain people in the area that frequent those schools that recruit, so to speak,” she said.

Outside of the threats, the gangs also provide some teens with a sense of belonging they are craving, according to Vivian McMillian, president of the 113th Precinct Community Council.

“These young men and women join these gangs because they have no family unit and they have the need to join a family,” she said.

City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), who has been working with Kevin’s family to start an anti-gang violence forum, said the problem is compounded because parents and educators are not knowledgeable about the in’s and out’s of gang culture.

“Schools are aware of it. Police are aware of it, but they don’t have enough resources to deal with it,” he said.

Both Kevin and the wounded teen were not gang members or involved with the argument, investigators said.

Police sources said several teens who saw the shooting were afraid to go to the authorities initially because they knew who took part in the gang fight and did not want to get involved.

Queens leaders said the best ways to end the fear that gangs inflict on the community would be to remove illegal guns from the streets and create more after-school programs that teach teens positive values.

Clopton said that too often officers from her precinct find illegal guns scattered throughout the area in places such as parks.

“You can see how often these guys are carrying guns,” she said.

City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria), who chairs the Public Safety Committee, agreed illegal guns needed to be taken off New York streets, but he also said the authorities needed to be tough on the traffickers who bring in the weapons from out of state.

He cited a recent sting investigation ordered by the mayor that showed undercover private investigators were able to purchase weapons at gun shows in the South without background checks and permits.

“We have to do more against these dealers,” Vallone said.

Getting the weapons off the street is not as important as getting teens off the streets and on better paths, according to Councilman James Sanders (D-Laurelton). The councilman said he was devastated by Kevin’s death and pointed out that southeast Queens needed an after-school center accessible to area teens.

There the kids could learn to behave maturely and not violently, according to Sanders.

“The problem is why do we feel so unsafe in these schools that we need to carry a gun? Why do we feel the need to settle differences has to be violent?” he asked.

During Kevin’s funeral service Friday, the boy’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Calvin Rice, echoed that sentiment during his eulogy. Too many kids and teens have been influenced by negative images of gangs through the media and are not aware of the consequences of violence, according to the minister.

“We need to wash our minds with the positive images,” he told the mourners.

But not everyone was optimistic that more centers and after-school activities were the solutions to gang violence.

Darren Faust, who knew Kevin through their time volunteering at New Jerusalem Baptist Church, said the gang culture is too much rooted in today’s youth.

“You can beat kids over the head and tell them what to do, but kids will be kids,” the 21-year-old said.

McMillian said the centers could work well if they had a staff of professionals, like social workers and psychologists, to tend to teens’ personal needs. Too many parents are either busy or unprepared to handle their kids’ problems and as a result slip through the cracks to the gangs, according to 113th Precinct Council president.

“I’m not saying they’re lost. We’re losing them, but we can save them,” she said.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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