PROVO The beating of a 14-year-old boy earlier this month in central Provo has police and school officials worried about what appears to be a resurgence of Hispanic gang activity.
Provo police earlier this month arrested a 19-year-old man who they said was armed with brass knuckles featuring small saw blades in connection with the beating of the boy near Dixon Middle School.
Police say the fight started over comments about a local gang. The man responded by pulling out the weapon and beating the young victim.
The boy was struck on the back and head with the tool, which had sharp saw blades that left distinctive marks, according to a police report filed in 4th District Court. The tool also had knife blades attached at each end.
The man was arrested and booked into the Utah County Jail for investigation of aggravated assault. He is being held on $15,000 cash or bond bail. Police are asking prosecutors to add a gang enhancement when charges are filed.
Police said the 14-year-old victim was at the school for an event March 2 when the incident occurred.
But it's not just fights that have officials worried.
"We're seeing a lot more tagging," said Greg Hudnall, Provo School District's student services director, referring to the gang graffiti that is becoming more common in the city. "We're seeing a lot more students who want to be in gangs. You can't drive anywhere in Provo and not see graffiti."
Graffiti touting various gangs is just one of the ways the taggers show off or promote gang affiliation.
Officials say entry into gang membership often starts out innocuously. Kids start hanging out, then get more attached to what they see as a sense of unity because of gang symbols and monikers. The kids start spray painting the symbols on city walls, challenging other groups and find themselves facing criminal charges.
Provo Police Capt. Rick Healey described the gang problem in Provo as one that "just keeps inching along."
"Right now, we have more graffiti than we've had in a long time," Healey said, "and that seems to be a little bit of a telltale (sign of gang activity)."
Provo police have made several graffiti-related arrests recently in an effort to stay on top of the problem, he said. Patrols in areas regularly hit by graffiti also have been increased.
When vandalism turns into violence, it often involves rival gangs, Healey said.
"One (gang) thinks they're hotter than the other one or they have more members or something, and it becomes something of a turf war," he said. "As they tag, paint their insignias on walls and things like that, another one (gang) will come along and cross it out and put theirs there. It becomes a little bit like a dog marking its territory."
Marsha Mark, Provo District gang specialist, said there appeared to be more gang involvement in 2005 than there had been in 2004.
"I think a lot kids enjoy what the gangs have to offer," Mark said.
Middle schools are the biggest recruiting grounds for gang members, she said.
"In the gang world, the younger the kid is in the gang, even when they get charged, it's like a slap on the wrist," Mark said. "The older kid might get detention or locked up."
One of the biggest factors in stopping and limiting gang exploits is education, Hudnall said."We're trying to be more preventative (by getting) involved with families," he said. "A lot of kids are naive here in Provo, so we're trying to put a stop to that. What we're seeing is the developmental stage of gangs a lot of recruiting . . . (and) a lot of trying to create gangs. We're trying to be more proactive."
Contributing: Jared Page, Sara Israelsen E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org