Retired detective talks gangs’ impact on schools

By David O’Keefee
Correspondent

A third-grader walks to his elementary school in the heart of Trenton, N.J. Bright yellow evidence markers draw his eye to the gleaming metal jackets of spent shell casings as he makes his commute.

Anthony Messina, a retired detective, described the scene of a shooting that took place along the same route children take while walking to school. Messina is fond of using movie analogies to illustrate his points, but what he described was not taken from a movie scene.

“The world needs good teachers because in this day and age, there are a lot of young people who are a rudderless ship,” Messina said.

Messina, now retired and serving a second term on the Ewing Township Board of Education, spent 26 years as a law enforcement officer. During that time, he said he watched gang activity explode across New Jersey’s urban centers.

That is why the College’s Student New Jersey Education Association (SNJEA) reached out to Messina, who lectured in room 115 of the Education Building on the evening of Wednesday, April 20.

Senior elementary education and English double major Julia Albretsen, who serves as president of SNJEA, said that before the presentation began, she heard a version of the night’s presentation Messina had previously given at a middle school. Based on that, she hoped that his words would have an impact that night at the College.

Others seemed unfamiliar about the subjects Messina would broach. Sophomore special education and sociology double major Becky Freeborn was keen to hear Messina speak, but expressed unfamiliarity with gang activity in the locations she was has been in herself.

Ewing, N.J., has a reputation for being a sleepy suburb, but Ewing’s border is not a barrier that insulates the town from gang activity, according to Messina.

“The light turns green and you’re in (Trenton),” he said in reference to Parkway Elementary School, located in Ewing.

Much of the presentation focused not just on the rampant growth of gang activity in Trenton, but its increase throughout New Jersey.

In 1995, he said, drug dealers were independent. That independence faded as organized criminal gangs rose to power in the early 2000s, according to Messina. An explosion of violence punctuated the emerging presence of Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings and other gang organizations in New Jersey.

He compared the suddenness with which these organizations appeared to an infestation of cockroaches.

“If you have a presence, you have a problem,” he said. “If you see one cockroach, it’s a problem.”

But according to Messina, in the early 2000s, law enforcement officers, educators and community leaders saw the presence, but didn’t see the problem until it had already festered into an infestation.

Messina said that he sees an abundance of youths indoctrinated into gangs. As a detective, he saw kids coerced into joining a gang, especially those of low socioeconomic standing tempted by money or the promise of belonging to a family unit.

According to a 2010 State Police survey titled “Gangs in New Jersey,” 46 percent of municipalities across New Jersey that reported a gang presence said that gangs were also present in the schools.

“It was really eye-opening,” Freeborn said after Messina cited that statistic.

As the presentation reached its conclusion, Messina spoke of educators being a pillar in the effort to reduce criminal gang activity. Because teachers spend so much time with students, they form a special rapport with their young pupils and can come to recognize warning flags that a child might be associating with known criminal elements before it’s too late to make a difference, according to Messina.

The presentation concluded the same way it began — by Messina pointing out that “the world needs good teachers.”