Gangs of Eugene: 'We've taken guns off of 12-year-old kids before'

Gangs of Eugene: 'We've taken guns off of 12-year-old kids before'

EUGENE, Ore. - Saul Patu set records as a defensive end for the Oregon Ducks - an athletic career that almost didn't happen because of gangs.

"I wasn't even considering going to college," he said.

Patu grew up in Seattle in an abusive home, a family life that left a void to be filled by gang members.

"The streets always told me they wanted me," he said. "The gang culture made me feel like I belonged."

His story is familiar to police gang investigators: children recruited into gangs.

"Age-wise, I mean we've taken guns off of 12-year-old kids before," said Sgt. Don Livingston with the Portland Police Bureau's gang unit.

And Eugene isn't immune, where police have seen a spike in gang activity involving kids as young as 10.

"We can't put our finger on why we're seeing such a spike in activity, especially among the younger generation," said Sgt. Scott McKee with the Eugene Police Department's gang unit.

Oregon is alone: A 2010 survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse of 12 to 17 year olds found 46 percent of public school students are aware of gangs in their school.

A National Gang Center survey in 41 cities found about 13.6 percent of boys and more than 8 percent of girls said they belong to a gang.

Police said they're attacking the problem by working to bring programs dedicated to gang education to local schools by next fall. 

"Children certainly sometimes don't consider that some decisions that they make today will impact the rest of their lives," said Sgt. Carl Stubbs, a school resource officer.

Patu credits his football coaches with pulling him out of the gang lifestyle.

"They not only coached the Xs and Os, they coached as fathers," he said.

Now the former gang member who got a second chance is sharing that opportunity with others. As a Kidsports coach, he strives to be a mentor and a role model.

Patu said coaches and teachers and especially parents have the greatest responsibility on Earth. "That's the opportunity to speak into a young person's life to totally alter and change where they're headed."