PATTERSON -- About 200 people, mostly parents, listened intently Tuesday night to details about a growing gang threat and what community and law enforcement officials are doing to quell the street violence.
In the wake of fights at Patterson High School last week and a lockdown at the campus, city and sheriff's officials laid out their efforts to handle the criminal issues.
"I'm here to find solutions and to listen to you," Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson told the audience.
The meeting was moved to the Apricot Valley Elementary School multipurpose room because city officials feared the City Council chamber could not provide enough seats.
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The special City Council meeting was scheduled to address more spe- cific concerns about law enforcement, including details about the gangs believed to have been involved in the fights.
About a dozen fights broke out Sept. 19 during a morning break, after a student pulled a fire alarm. Dozens of Stanislaus County sheriff's deputies and California Highway Patrol officers responded, and the school was placed on lockdown for 3½ hours while deputies searched for a reported gun.
None was found, but three empty shotgun shells were discovered in a classroom the next day. Authorities said they believe that was a prank.
Ten students have been suspended and several could be expelled, Patterson Unified School District Superintendent Patrick Sweeney said. Those students also face criminal charges, said Tyrone Spencer, chief of Patterson police services.
"People who join gangs make a conscious decision to become a criminal," Spencer said.
But he said more needs to be done to intervene and break the grip that gang culture has on Patterson teens.
13 gangs operating in city
Detective Ed Meraz talked about the 13 gangs that operate in Patterson, and he said there is a lot of Bay Area influence in the gang culture because of the city's proximity to the Oakland and San Francisco metro areas.
He asked parents to look for signs of gang affiliation in their children: gang colors in clothing, nicknames, text messaging, as well as being aware of their friends and their friends' parents.
"Find out what he's got in his backpack," said Meraz, who works for Patterson police as a gang investigator. "When was the last time you looked through his room?"
He also asked residents to report graffiti as soon as possible, because it's a sign gangs want to claim that neighborhood as their turf. Meraz said graffiti can serve as a catalyst for violence when rival gangs discover the spray-painted property.
"The next thing we're going to have is a street war," Meraz said.He said sheriff's officials have arrested seven suspected gang members in Patterson in the past few weeks.
"We really need your support in combating gangs in Patterson," Meraz said.
Community activist John Mataka proposed that residents and city officials start a dialogue with gang members and come to an agreement that schools are off-limits.
"What happens in the streets is not good, but we're worried about what's happening in our schools right now," Mataka said. "Our schools need to be an off-limits zone."
City officials say they also want to strengthen their prevention efforts by providing more activities to keep kids away from gangs.
Parks and Recreation Director Adrienne Chaney highlighted the city's youth activities and facilities under construction that are intended to provide a save haven for children.
"The biggest thing we can do is promote families and bring families together," Chaney said.
Christianson said he is committed to providing Patterson with enough enforcement resources to curb this new wave of gang violence.
Residents said there is a strong police presence near the high school and other areas where the threat exists.
Christianson said that presence will continue as long as it's needed and that residents should look at the meeting as the start of a joint effort against gangs.
"I don't want any of you to walk away with doom and gloom and it's all about gangs," he said.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.