HANCOCK COUNTY — Though law enforcement officials say gangs have rarely been a problem in Hancock County, new state laws are requiring educators to consider how they would react if a criminal presence ever did develop in local schools.
The new requirements, set forth by the Indiana Department of Education, Criminal Justice Institute and Department of Child Services, were introduced in June 2013 and require public school districts to submit official policies regarding gang control by June 2016.
In response, officials from all four Hancock County public school districts have agreed to collaborate and form a countywide committee to develop local policies. The committee will consist of parents, a law enforcement officer, prosecutor, juvenile court judge and representatives from each district’s administration.
Steve Satterly, safety director at New Palestine High School, said although gang activity doesn’t appear to be an emerging issue across the county, it’s best to take a proactive approach to the matter.
“Things can escalate quickly once you begin seeing (gang) activity,” said Satterly, co-chairman of the countywide gang policy committee. “By getting ahead of the issue, we can make sure that gangs aren’t able to gain a foothold in our community.”
When the committee assembles for its first meeting in October, members will review a sample policy provided by the department of education, then discuss what to add or revise to reflect the needs of the community, Satterly said.
As required by the new laws, policies have to provide a definition of what constitutes a criminal gang and must contain a statement prohibiting gang activity in schools. They also must establish a procedure for reporting suspected gang activity and provide information about support and intervention services for those suspected of gang affiliation.
Hancock County Sheriff Mike Shepherd said he occasionally hears rumblings about gang activity in the area, but it’s never necessitated any significant response from law enforcement.
Still, he said, it’s an important issue to examine, especially in school settings, where gang influence can manifest itself in several ways.
“Peer pressure can definitely play a role, especially in high schools and middle schools,” Shepherd said. “This will give us a head start on that, so we can deal with it beforehand so we’re prepared if we do see that.”
Miles Hercamp, assistant principal at New Palestine High School, said though gangs aren’t currently an issue at the school, it’s impossible to predict if they will be in the future.
“It’s possible that some influence could spill over from Marion County and make it out here,” he said. “Hopefully nothing does happen, but if it does, then we’ll be prepared to deal with the situation.”