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Gangs target playgrounds

Birmingham's black youths are being lured into crime at the school gates. George Wright reports.

BIRMINGHAM'S violent drug gangs are using the city's schools as recruiting grounds, according to a leading community worker.

Hardened members of gangs such as the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew, whose rivalry cost the lives of Charlene Ellis, 18, and her cousin Latisha Shakespeare, 17, in the New Year shooting, routinely visit playgrounds at home-time in the hope of drawing vulnerable pupils into their gangster lifestyle.

There are even junior versions of the gun gangs, with names such as the Rally Close Crew and the Cash Money Gang, whose younger members take part in petty crimes to earn "respect" before graduating to the senior ranks.

Guy Woolery is co-ordinator of the Kwesi mentoring scheme, which offers "fathering" role models for black youths who are at risk of exclusion - the troubled, rebellious pupils who are also prime targets for the gangs.

He said: "Older kids who are members of gangs will drive up to school gates in their flash cars, doing wheel-spins and playing loud music. They are trying to attract young boys and girls and entice them into their lifestyle.

"They know what sort of people they want: those who may have been excluded from school or have difficulties at home. It is these children who tend to want to gain status and respect. Often, their behaviour by Year 9 or 10 is already manifesting itself as thuggish.

"Sometimes certain children are targeted by older kids who have recently left school to join gangs. The older kids will come back and look out for them. They will drive by after school to show them what they can have if they follow in their footsteps."

Mr Woolery, who set up Kwesi eight years ago, said the gangs also use parties and pirate radio stations to extend their influence over young people in the area.

He said: "The gangs have money in all sorts of interests in the community - radio stations, music promotion and barber shops.

"When they drop by at schools they will hand out tickets for these teen-bashes. Once children are there, the gangsters will sell them drugs and continue showing off their lifestyle. For some children who feel alienated and are looking for the kudos and protection that belonging to a gang offers, it is very attractive.

"Once they have a link with a gang they can start bragging about it at school and using it as carte blanche to bully and intimidate other kids."

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