Department of Defense Education Activity officials have issued a warning that one of the States’ most dangerous gangs could try to gain a foothold among DODDS pupils in Europe.

In a newsletter sent to staff members last week, DODEA officials said that stateside pupils coming to overseas schools might try to establish cliques of MS-13, a flexible, organized and highly violent gang reportedly found in 33 U.S. states.

“While attending civilian schools in the U.S., future DODEA students could be exposed to widespread gang activities, influence and violence. Some may be recruited as members or associates into an MS-13 clique,” according to the newsletter, which is available on some school Web sites.

The goal of the newsletter is to make educators aware of the problem so they are not surprised if it crops up in their community, said David Ruderman, a Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe spokesman.

MS-13, which stands for Mara Salvatrucha, or “street tough,” has an estimated 6,000 members in the Washington, D.C., area and the northern Virginian suburbs. In some areas, gang members purposely mutilate individuals to create an atmosphere of fear, according to the newsletter. The average age of members is 15 to 17, but in some areas members are as young as 11.

“In schools and neighborhoods where (it is) active, MS-13 creates a climate of fear and increases the amount of violence and criminal behavior,” the newsletter reads. “They refuse to back down from the police and have openly threatened both federal and local law enforcement.”

Administrators across the U.S. are using the start of the school year as an opportunity to prevent the spread of youth gangs by reminding pupils that gang activity or “wannabe gangster” behavior will not be tolerated. The monthly newsletter sent to administrators, teachers and counselors is used as a guide for staff members and focuses on ways to maintain a safe environment at school.

While acknowledging there have been no confirmed cases of MS-13 infiltrating DODDS schools in Europe, Ruderman said that schools in Europe have experienced “ganglike” behavior in pupils. In the past 18 months, there have been two incidents that involved pupils fighting, wearing gang colors or claiming to be members of gangs, he said.

Some students at Patch American High School in Stuttgart, Germany, thought the MS-13 warning was much ado about nothing.

“When you think about it, only two (gang-related) fights in 18 months … there’s a fight every week at schools in the States,” said Stefan Reed, a senior.

Jeff Horsley, a senior who has traveled Europe as a member of the Patch basketball team, said trips in prior years to Heidelberg and Wiesbaden schools (in Germany) could get a little rowdy.

“It wasn’t (life-)threatening, but you could run into a fight,” Horsley said. “The people from DODDS now seem super-polite.”

Another senior, Madelina Brown, said, “I think it’s mostly the administration who blows it out of proportion. It (administrative angst) is not as bad as it was before,” said Brown, who has lived in Stuttgart for 14 years.

John Keating, a Mediterranean School District school psychologist in Vicenza, Italy, said he doesn’t believe there is a gang problem in Defense Department schools in Europe because overseas communities are not “fertile ground” for gang recruitment.

Military communities are small and safe areas, and the high turnover rate of children makes it difficult for gangs to flourish at overseas bases, he said. However, administrators, teachers and counselors look for signs of gang involvement.

“We stay alert to something that might be imported in,” he said.

Members of MS-13 can be identified by the colors blue and white, which are taken from the El Salvadoran flag, according to the newsletter. “Tell-tale graffiti and markings will typically include body tattoos containing the texts MS, MS-13, 13 or 18. Look for the consistent wearing of the same color combinations “i.e. blue and white which could also match friends’ clothing colors,” the newsletter states.

“It is kids who want to be cool. They may be influenced by family members. In [some] cases, they act as if they would like to be in gangs,” Ruderman said.

The newsletter also quotes a U.S. congressman and a Maryland police detective.

“These gangs are extremely violent and they are recruiting children in our high schools, middle schools and even elementary schools,” states U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., of the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Justice Department.

Police Detective Tony Avendorf, a gang expert in Prince George’s County, Md., is quoted as saying it is difficult to eliminate gangs once they take root.

“The key is to prevent gangs from starting. Administrators and staff need to know the telltale signs of gang activities and be prepared to deal with this growing problem.”

The newsletter, which also lists signs of gang activity including hand signs, graffiti, jewelry and tattoos, can be found at:

Stars and Stripes reporter Charlie Coon contributed to this story.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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