COLUMBIA — About 30 people discussed gang awareness Wednesday night in the Hickman High School Media Center following a presentation by Columbia police Officer Mike Hayes.
"I think it's good to see what it is about," Marta Holmes, a parent, said. "I'm not concerned about my kids being in a gang, but I think that everyone needs to be educated about all these different things."
The presentation covered topics such as ways to prevent children from becoming involved in a gang, signs that a child may be in a gang and ways that parents, schools and neighbors can help prevent a child from becoming involved in a gang.
Following the presentation, parents and teachers asked questions and voiced concerns to Hayes.
Smithton Middle School teacher Nancy Rahner raised concern about gang activity downtown.
"I have concerns about downtown Columbia," Rahner said. "It's changed over the years, and I'm concerned that our city is getting infiltrated with some sort of gang activity, whether it is true gang activities or gang wannabes."
Holmes voiced concern over how to communicate with parents of her child's friends.
"It drives her (Holmes' daughter) crazy because her mom, me, likes to know who she's with, where they're going and when they're going to be back home," Holmes said. "It seems like her friends' parents aren't as watchful as I am. They make me look like the bad guy. It drives me crazy that parents don't talk to each other."
Hayes commended Holmes for talking to her daughter's friends and parents and stressed the importance of knowing where children are at all times. One of the main reasons people become involved in gangs is because they have a large amount of unsupervised time, he said.
"Kids will be kids, and you're doing the right thing by following up," Hayes said.
Rahner said learning about gang signs was important.
"Teaching at the middle school, I think it is important to recognize the possibility of there maybe being an affiliation, maybe not involvement, but wannabes," she said.
Hayes also addressed ways to reach out youth and open communication.
"It's a grass-roots effort," he said. "It starts with the parent and with the whole community. There is not just one group that is more influential than another. The kids spend a lot of time at school as well as at home. We need to start instilling the positive so that they are less likely to be attracted to the negative."
The event was created by Bridges, an alcohol and drug prevention organization at all three Columbia high schools. The club organizes forums each year to promote community discussion and to provide information. Previous topics have included alcohol and drug awareness and defensive driving.
Maria McMahon, sponsor of Bridges and outreach counselor at Hickman, said she was pleased with the turnout and discussion from the event. She said she hopes to have another forum next month or by the end of the semester.