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Othello schools work to weed out gangs

Columbia Basin Herald - 10/25/2023

Oct. 24—OTHELLO — Amy Parris, director of student services for the Othello School District, said district officials faced a challenge at the start of the 2021-22 school year — gang activity was starting to seep back into Othello schools.

"What we did last year was take a pretty hard stance. 'We're not putting up with that here,'" she said.

The key to meeting the challenge was ensuring parents, teachers and students knew what to look for, and standing firm when students were doing things that indicated gang activity, she said.

It started with getting the word out to administrators and students, but also to students and parents. Aaron Garza, Othello Police Department sergeant and school resource officer, said it's one of those situations where people need to know what they're looking for, and looking at.

"What it basically boils down to is awareness," Garza said. "The more people that know the signs of what gang activity looks like, the more detail they're going to be able to report it to us and the better they're going to help us in our response to combat it."

Parris said OSD officials first focused on getting the information out at the start of the 2021-22 school year.

"We did a real massive education of our staff. Every school had a presentation that was — current reality, I guess. We had pictures, what to watch for, the dress codes of the current gangs. Some history that was super-interesting for people to understand, how (gang activity) crept up here to the Columbia Basin," Parris said.

"I think that was probably one of the best things we did, because it just made people aware. Things that wouldn't necessarily be gang-related, but because a group of kids all choose to wear the same thing, and that means something to them. We wouldn't always know that, but we do through (training)," Parris said.

The second phase was letting students know what would be expected, Parris said.

"We educated the kids next, after the teachers. Part of our plan was to let the kids know loud and clear that we want schools to be safe for everyone, and there's no place for that," she said.

Parris credited the OPD and Adams County Juvenile authorities for their help in getting that training.

"This is why I love our partnership. We learned so much from them. They're in the trenches out there. They know how to handle this stuff. And we don't always."

District officials hired a second school resource officer, and contracted with a behavioral interventionist Jesse Campos. Campos works with students who are considered to be at risk of gang activity or who might be a threat to the safety of other students, Parris said.

"He came at the perfect time for us," she said.

Back in the day, Campos was involved in gang activity, Parris said, and he can talk to students from personal experience.

"That's what Jesse Campos has provided for us," she said.

Campos said there are three crucial factors in helping students avoid involvement with, or get out of, gang activity. Communication and awareness, getting information to the community, letting Othello residents know what to look for whether they have children in school or not, is crucial, he said.

"(The third) is relationship factors," he said. "That is huge. And what I get a chance to do is, those that have been caught with gang paraphernalia or gang challenges in the school district, they have to go through my office to get back in. So building those relationships with them, cultivating that, it has a huge turnaround too."

Parris said some students weren't really sure at first if district officials meant what they said.

"It took them two trimesters to the whole school year to figure out what they were going to do," she said.

Some left the district, some transferred to distance learning and some did nothing, Parris said. When students who hadn't made what distinct officials considered a sincere effort tried to register for the current school year, they were told they had to meet the standards, she said.

"I would say we're definitely better than we were last October when it really broke. And I am just proud of our community, the communication, the effort (to combat the challenge)," Parris said.

Cheryl Schweizer can be reached via email at


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