In the Spotlight

News & Features
Rural Gangs
By Kathryn Herzog
December 22, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 28.8

Gangs in Minnesota have long been considered a "city" problem; much of the attention and many of the resources have focused on Minneapolis and St. Paul. But officials who work with gangs in rural Minnesota say the number of young people joining gangs is growing. That message can undermine small-town values and reputations. As a result, the response in small communities has varied.

FOLEY MINNESOTA IS A SMALL FARMING TOWN, just east of St. Cloud. It's a town proud of its high school teams — Class 3A football champions for instance. Foley takes pride in its youth. On the outskirts of the town sits Foley High School, a large, modern building with an enrollment of 650 students. Many drive long distances to attend school.

School and law enforcement officials agree Foley High School does not have a gang problem. But like many rural schools in Minnesota, it has had it's share of students involved in gang activity.

Foley High School Principal Alan Nieman says kids looking for the excitement of gangs in Foley have had little luck and eventually end up elsewhere.

Nieman: In my three years here, I have one case of what you would call significant gang-related graffiti, and we were able to go to that student right away - and I mean he stuck out like a sore thumb. I mean, we have all these students. Who would be the only student who would do something like this?
Nieman says teachers at Foley have trained to identify possible gang-related graffiti and clothing styles that can show gang affiliation. He says the school has been proactive - dealing with gangs by focusing on discipline. But he admits Foley is not isolated from the issue of gangs.
Nieman: There's always gonna be that one or two or three percent who just don't get along with anybody, so they'll do any kind of behaviors that get them attention. So they see maybe on TV or something where gangs have a certain symbol, then just for attention they'll write that symbol on something, and now everybody thinks they're a gang member and that's not the case.
Nieman says Foley doesn't have gangs, but there are kids in town who've traveled to St. Cloud for gang activities.

Sheryl Peters is a Chemical Health Consultant at St. Cloud Hospital and the Foley School District. She's seen kids in Foley flash hand signals, or wear their colors, or hat tipped to the side to show gang affiliation.

Peters: Most of these kids are what we call new into the gang, so their kind of — they've gotten through the initiation phase and that's pretty much where they've been at. They haven't been involved in any drive-bys and they haven't been involved in any violent activity. It's more of a status thing to say they belong to a gang. They do it for protection they say. What they need protection from, I have no idea.

Peters say many kids join gangs for status, to create a support group that sometimes takes the place of family.
Peters: In their minds, they believe that's where they get their empowerment is from the gang — and when they don't have the gang around they don't think they're worth anything.
Peters agrees that Foley High School has been proactive in dealing with kids who have gang connections. And she says the state gang-strike task force has become an effective tool, working to educate people about the effect gangs can have on a young people whether they live in a city or on a farm.
Peters: I think that if rural area kids gets hooked-up in a gang, they're the same as a kid that's from the city, 'cause a gang has their rules, their empowerment: you have to do this, you need to be part of this. They prey on kids who are known to be alone — loners. I just think that once they're in the gang, it doesn't matter where they're from, they're gonna have to do whatever the gang does.
In the hallways, students at Foley High shuffle to seventh-hour class. For seniors Richie, Jason, and Jeff it's study hall. The three teenagers are good students, involved with after-school clubs and sports. Typically, they head to St. Cloud on the weekends to hang out or shop at the mall. They say they've heard about the Crips and the Bloods and they've heard students talking about the gangs in the hallways.
Student: About that cruising thing, some guys I talk to - like from Foley - they were cruising around on Division, and like some guys got mad at 'em and started chasing 'em, and I don't know how the story went, but somehow they got away and I guess they had weapons.
The three students laugh and say they think that's stupid. Like any small-town high school, they know everyone, and most students look down on kids in gangs. They say people in Foley want to live in a nice town.
Student: 'Cause we wanna feel like it's a nice place to be. I mean, we wanna think that Foley doesn't have these problems, that's what I think. Small towns, I don't think, are absent from these problems.

Student: There's stuff that happens, but it's not on as big of a scale, you know? I mean, it's not like, you know, up here in every news station within 60 miles, if something happens (yeah, it's not publicized) you know it's just something big that maybe goes in the Benton County News or St. Cloud Times or whatever, and that's about the end of it.

Student: There's kids in gangs here, whether it's a big-time gang or what people think of when they hear the word "gang" or just a piddley little group of people, but there's people in them.
The three students agree that kids from Foley probably join gangs because there's nothing else to do. Foley offers little in the way of teenage fun; no movie theater, shopping mall, or even a teen center. For kids who do venture into St. Cloud, the environment may be changing. It seems St. Cloud police and gang-strike force officials are cracking down on loitering and strictly enforcing curfew.