VALDOSTA – Authorities and residents focused on gun violence and gangs Thursday during When Leaders Meet Summit 2.0. 

Adrian Rivers, Valdosta city council at-large candidate, partnered with Kathryn Grant, director of state affairs for Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, to host the event at Valdosta State University.

Desmond Grant, father of the late Desiyunna Hill, participated in the panel discussion.

Hill, 18, was shot to death in late June while at a party at a 1700 block North Lee Street event center, according to Valdosta Police Department reports.

Desmond Grant spoke about losing a child to gun violence during the summit.

The vital role of parental efforts to protect children while also keeping guns out of the hands of children dominated the conversation.

Reginald Rainge, lead teacher at the Department of Juvenile Justice, said youths who get arrested either have guns upon arrest or “ditch” the guns prior to arrest.

“That’s a major issue. That’s a major problem and I think that as a community, we need to band together even more to help combat some of these gun issues that we have,” he said to the crowd.

“Like we said numerous times today, parental involvement, to make parents aware of what’s really going on because parents (who) don’t believe their babies have guns are a part of the bigger problem that we see in our professions and in our careers.”

The disconnect between parents and their children is not the sole issue, Kathryn Grant said.

Although she said kids are being lost to gangs for a sense of belonging, the accessibility of guns must be addressed.

She also said youths must be identified “who are at risk of either contemplating suicide or acting violently in some way.”

Kelly Saxon is the senior lead community coordinator for the Southwestern region in the re-entry service division of the Department of Community Supervision.

Saxon proposed a gun-safety campaign named It’s Loaded, to deter people from leaving guns unattended in areas where they can be stolen or are accessible to children.

She advocates locks be placed on gun cases and gun-owner responsibility.

Rivers said people should consistently think guns are loaded, therefore preventing accidental deaths.

Along with the It’s Loaded campaign, The Village initiative was also discussed during the summit. It encompasses community leaders coming together to provide action, not just conversation.

“Somebody’s going to play a role of creating that It’s Loaded campaign and presenting that to the community, presenting that to more leaders the next time that we meet,” Rivers said.

During the panel discussion, Rainge said of the more than 8,000 youths served in the DJJ detention center throughout Georgia in 2018, about 2,000 of them had gun-related charges.

Charges that include murder and robbery, he said.

“I think just as an employee, that’s too many of our babies with guns in their hands,” he said, “and from what I see on the inside, there’s a plethora of guns out there on the streets that they can get their hands on.”

The youths find guns in homes, cars they break into or in gang-related incidents, he said.

Although parents don’t believe their children are involved, gang-related activities are on the rise, Rainge said.

“All the kids are in gangs,” he said. “That’s our biggest problem.”

Gangs don’t only consist of “bad kids,” he said. They include children who are arrested on minimal charges and are introduced to gangs while incarcerated.

Rainge was asked by Chief Assistant Southern District Attorney Tracy Chapman why the “good kids” join gangs. His answer: survival and peer pressure.

“It’s survival because when they come behind bars, it’s a whole different world … No matter how long they’re in there for, they have to do what they have to do to survive,” he responded.

The behavior transfers to the outside world once they’re released, Valdosta Police Sgt. Sabrina Smith said.

“Your name is out there amongst the soldiers,” she said.

Solutions began to circulate regarding how to “win back” the youth from gang communities.

Smith suggested replacing violent behavior with positive conflict resolution.

Thameka Miller, clinical supervisor for the multi-systemic therapy program for Community Solutions, rehabs youths and their families once the youths are released from detention centers.

From her experience, teenagers join gangs because gang members are the ones who show them love rather than their parents, she said.

As a recommendation, she said there should be an increased display of genuine love in homes.

“If we really instill in them love, that love will spill from the home" and spread throughout the community, Miller said.

She suggested involving children in positive activities such as art and music.

Both Kathryn Grant and Rivers urged residents to understand gun violence among youth is an issue that should concern them.

“It’s our problem and it’s to empower us to realize that today that it’s our problem,” he said. “This is our community. It’s our children and we have everything we need in this community to improve.”

Simply put: “Our community is our business,” he said. 

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