By Stephanie Ramirez
GAITHERSBURG, MD. - It starts early. WUSA9 learned Thursday, gang leaders are recruiting new members in a disturbing place: Elementary Schools.
“Oh grade-school. They're recruiting in grade-school but generally 5th grade and on,” said Northern Virginia Regional Task Force Director Jay Lanham.
It may feel like their babies then but 5th grade and on, the time kids are starting to find themselves, has become a prime target age for MS-13 gang recruiting especially, according to Lanham.
His team is aiding the investigation into the gang-related murder of 15-year-old Alexandra Reyes-Rivas, the Montgomery County teen found dead in Springfield, Va. this past weekend.
“Even more concerning is the increase in juvenile violent offenders," he said.
Thursday investigators confirmed five suspects with gang links are now charged in Reyes' murder and abduction. Of those five, investigators say three are 17-years-old. Police also said another five teenagers are charged with gang participation.
"Son dentro,” said Reyes’ grieving mother on Wednesday. “They’re inside,” is what she said in English, referring to gang activity in her daughters’ schools. She told WUSA she believed her daughter’s involvement began in middle school. The family lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Alexandra Reyes went to Watkins Mill High School, according to a Montgomery County Public Schools Spokesperson, who says Reyes dropped out. The spokesperson said Reyes was no longer a student, so when her body was found in Virginia, a note did not go out to parents and students.
Just last month, hearings started for a 17-year-old student from the same school, who is charged in the gang-related Facebook luring and murder of a New Jersey 22-year-old. Police say the 22-year-old victim’s body was discovered by hikers near Game Preserve Rd. in Gaithersburg last November.
MCPS is committed to providing a safe and welcoming learning environment for all students. The district works closely with the Montgomery County Police Department, community nonprofit organizations and other social service agencies to educate students about the dangers of gangs, provide students with supports and prevent gang recruitment in schools, said Gboyinde Onijala, Senior Communications Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools.
It’s not just a Maryland problem.
"I can't give you the name of the schools in Northern Virginia area and primarily in the areas where there is a heavy population, a Latino, because that's who they tend to prey on,” said Lanham.
He also said, “we can't arrest our way out of the problem. I mean everyone has to be involved and it starts with the parents."
Police don't want to scare parents, but investigators also say this is a reality.
Lanham says one of the ‘tells’ to look for is a drastic change in behavior, like a kid who is maybe really into a sport and then all of a sudden changes clothes, friends and starts hating school.
Anyone in the Northern Virginia needing help in the area of gang violence can contact the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, click here.