Editor's note: Because of a source error, this story has been corrected to say that Carlos Harris was exposed to gang activity as a child, but was not involved in a gang.
ELKHART — Carlos Harris grew up around gang activity while growing up in Chicago, but left that life behind thanks to college scholarships.
On Friday, he attended a presentation on local gang activity and said that some of the stories and images brought back memories.
“The things he talked about, I was there,” he said.
Now the youth services coordinator for the Elkhart County YMCA, Harris pointed out after the morning presentation that “a lot of this happens at school.”
Educators filled many of the seats at a Support Our Kids presentation Friday led by Rich Matteson, who had been on the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department for 16 years and now serves as a reserve officer while working as Concord’s director of transportation and school safety.
Matteson largely learned what he knows about gangs directly from gang members, he said. He spent much of Friday morning informing the audience of local gang identifiers — their colors, symbols, hand signs and behavior — along with local trends in gang activity and what can be done.
Like gangs across the country, local gangs are working to recruit younger members, Matteson said.
In the 1990s, gang activity was pretty much limited to people between 15 and 21 years old, he said, but now gangs are recruiting in third- and fourth-grades, while people in their 60s may also still be involved.
At the same time, gangs that traditionally limit membership to a certain race or culture are expanding into more rural areas and allowing people outside their usual restrictions to join.
Matteson warned the group, though, that they shouldn’t be too quick to think certain people are involved in gangs because of colors or symbols they wear. Some teens try to dress like they’re in a gang without actually being, he said, and people can wear a school’s or sports team’s colors not knowing those colors also align with a particular gang.
“It gets complicated,” he said.
He said, though, educators need to learn about gangs in their area to be able to stop gang activity in schools
Matteson recommended that people working with possible gang members need to show respect for those individuals, noting that it’s not a popular idea.
Intimidation usually leads to confrontation and they won’t respond to lecturing, he said. “Respect goes a long way,” he said, urging those in attendance to treat possible gang members as individuals and to take time to learn their backgrounds.
He also said that he knows it can be an expense, but that people need to remove graffiti as soon as possible. Graffiti, he said, can be like a newspaper for gangs, detailing who’s in the area, who their rivals are and major events in gang activity.
Along with encouraging people to get know possible gang members, Matteson applauded programs like the Boys & Girls Club, the YMCA and other community clubs.
“It takes time,” he said. “You need to build rapport.”
Friday’s event was put on by Elkhart County Support Our Kids, which merged with the Elkhart County Anti-Gang Coalition, in 2008.
Matteson said that people who want to learn more about local gang activity and gangs in general can contact him at Concord High School.