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Questions abound over gang grant

JACKSON — Northampton County is being surveyed for a gang prevention program.

On Monday, the Board of Commissioners heard from Tony Simmons, the grant assessment coordinator, and Walter Smith, executive director of Northeastern Economic Empowerment Corporation. The program is administrated through the North Carolina Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Simmons and Smith’s presence before the board comes after a request by the commissioners at their last meeting to learn more about the program that they did not sign off on. Though the grant is state funded, approval is need by the commissioners as the grant funding is funneled through the county.

At their December meeting, the board agreed to hold funds from the $25,000 two-part grant as they were informed by former Commission Chair Robert Carter that he had signed paperwork without it coming before the full board. They then directed County Manager Wayne Jenkins to have Simmons to come before them at their next meeting to receive information about the program.

At Monday’s meeting, Smith said the gang prevention assessment has been going on since September with the objective to identify gang activity in the county.

He said 1,250 youth surveys have been passed out with 1,000 going to public and private school students in grades 6-12 and 250 given to young people, ages 16-24, not in school.

With the information provided by the surveys along with interviews conducted with law enforcement an intervention plan could be developed for the second part of the grant.

Smith said the assessment will help to identify the names of gangs and the risk factors of those involved. In the comprehensive survey, self perception, family issues, education, diets and sleep patterns are among the topics studied for determining the risk factors.

“It’s to see what areas are missing in their lives that would contribute to gang activity,” Smith said.

In the prevention portion, three forums would be held in the county where citizens, parents and children would be educated about gang activity and also how to determine whether or not their child was involved in one.

“Are there known gangs in Northampton County,” asked Commission Vice Chair James Hester.

“There is nothing on public record to say that there are or are not gangs,” responded Smith. “The police officers say there are and some students say there are.”

Hester along with Commission Chair Fannie Greene questioned Simmons’ qualifications as the grants assessment coordinator, which requires a bachelor degree in human services and/or three years experience with working with at-risk youth and diverse populations.

Smith said that while Simmons does not have a degree in human services he does have the required experience for the position.

Hester referred to a copy of the survey and to a question asking the participant if they have had sex.

“Tell me what does that have to with gang violence,” he asked.

Smith said those types of questions help to determine the risk factors that may ascertain gang activity.

“I see that as personal information,” said Hester.

Smith added that parents are notified about the survey and the students do not have to participate in it.

County officials were also concerned about the lack of detail provided in the objective of the grant.

Jenkins asked if a time line could be provided to the board.

“We shall submit to you a timeline and a detailed objective,” said Smith.

Commissioner Virginia Spruill said she was wondering about the commissioners’ role in the matter.

“The primary role of oversight of spending public money,” Jenkins responded.

He further explained that the commissioners have fiscal responsibility over money that comes through the county finance books. He said there is a local Juvenile Crime Prevention Council.

Spruill said she felt like the board should be speaking to JCPC officials from Greenville.

“Those are the folk we should be talking to instead of bringing these people here to be put through the Spanish Inquisition,” she said.

Greene rebutted saying that the board was responsible for the funds and “if something goes wrong with the program the board of commissioners is responsible.”

Simmons asked if the funds would be released by the county.

“How is it that we can hold the money?” said Spruill.

“You need to ask that of your board,” said Jenkins.

Greene said it was because some things were done out of line with this particular grant. She added the money would be released.

Finance Officer Dot Vick said the county had received no paperwork from the state when the grant money came in.

Hester said the commissioners had no knowledge of the grant until it showed up on the county finance journals.

“I want to know what I’m signing,” he said. “I have nothing against the program.”

Jenkins said the county is always in favor of receiving grant money, it just has to go through the proper process.

Simmons said when they found out they had received the grant they only had two weeks to get the commissioners’ signatures and during those two weeks commissioners did not have a scheduled meeting.