A voice quietly greets two teenage girls who show up late to Sultan Middle School on a recent Saturday night: "Do you have anything on you...

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A voice quietly greets two teenage girls who show up late to Sultan Middle School on a recent Saturday night: “Do you have anything on you?”

The two adamantly shake their heads no, so Angie Freedman lets them inside.

Anyone from the ages of 11 to 18 can drop in at Safe Stop — provided they play by the rules, said program coordinator Freedman. Drugs and alcohol are obvious no-nos; gang colors and hand signs won’t fly, either.

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The goal of the program, run weekly by the Volunteers of America, is to keep youngsters — from the tough kids to the jocks — off the streets and out of trouble. Between 40 and 80 youths come each week from Sultan and nearby communities.

Freedman doubts she’s changing kids’ lives by offering a place to shoot hoops, eat chips and hang out for three hours a week, but she hopes she can alter the course of a Saturday evening.

Safe Stop staff member Dayna Netherton agrees.

“Even if they are in here for 15 minutes, that’s 15 minutes they are not on the corner,” said the Sultan resident.

More signs of activity

Countywide, law enforcement says gang activity is increasing. In Sultan, officials say the small, former logging town east of Monroe is seeing more youths emulating gang members by wearing colors and symbols linked to gangs and spray-painting graffiti tags.

“There is gang-related activity in almost every community in the county. No area is necessarily immune from that,” said Everett police Detective Kevin Fairchild, who specializes in gang issues and vice crimes.

Traditional signs of gangs — graffiti, property damage and small thefts — have escalated, though it is difficult to know how much of it is directly related to gangs, he said.

While the bulk of activity is in Everett and its surrounding areas, there are more than a dozen active gangs operating elsewhere around the county, said Fairchild. Washington state law defines a “gang” as a group of three or more people that has identifiable leadership and regularly conspires and acts for criminal purposes.

Gov. Christine Gregoire on Monday signed legislation designed to deal with the rising gang presence across the state. The measure will provide grants to communities to help deal with gang activity, including some graffiti. It also will create a database to help law enforcement track gang members and activity and adds to the jail time for a gang-related crime.

Rick Hawkins, a sheriff’s deputy filling in as Sultan’s interim police chief, said he is aware of two groups that identify themselves as gangs in Sultan.

“They’re not at the level of those in other areas of the county,” he said, noting “wannabe” gangsters are the most pervasive at this point. “Are some involved in criminal activity? I believe so.”

Many of the teens who attend Safe Stop claim gang activity is happening in their schools and behind empty buildings — several talk matter-of-factly about gang fights and recruitment.

As Safe Stop — held only on Saturdays — winds down for the night, two young attendees head for the door, telling Freedman they’re going to a party.

“Don’t be dumb,” she says.

Right time to act

Sultan City Administrator Deborah Knight said giving kids a positive outlet, like what is offered at Safe Stop, is a way to curb gang rumblings — “nip it in the bud” — before things intensify.

“The community is concerned, and we want to address it at this level, and to ensure it doesn’t escalate into something more serious,” said Knight.

Young people who live in the rural community say there’s not enough to do on weekends, particularly at night.

Boredom is a major driver getting teens to show up at Safe Stop, where they can use the gym, play Twister or video games, and chat from 7-10 p.m. Some attend because they don’t want to be at home watching TV, while others say it’s a refuge from troubled friends.

Safe Stop was started a decade ago by the Police Department to keep kids out of trouble, according to former Sultan Police Chief Fred Walser. Vandalism and problems on the street declined on weekend nights as a result.

“We had a place where kids could go to burn energy,” he said. Volunteers of America stepped in to run the program when it became too tough to find enough people to chaperone the youths.

The program, which costs about $8,500 a year and is partly funded by the city and a grant from the county, was modeled after the now-defunct Neutral Zone in Mountlake Terrace. That program became popular in the 1990s, when the county saw a swell in gang-related activity.

The Neutral Zone provided at-risk youths a place to hang out on weekend evenings but was plagued by dwindling resources. It disbanded last summer.

“We knew very well that gangs were on the rise in our area. … We knew that when we closed The Zone,” said former Neutral Zone director Rose Sloan. “There was nothing we could do about it.”

The Rev. Richard Gibson, former board president for The Zone, said there were still 50 to 80 kids coming to the program when it closed.

“It was an excellent program,” he said. “I’ve often thought, ‘What are those kids doing now?’ “

At a disadvantage

In Snohomish County, there are fewer programs and resources for gang intervention and prevention than in King and Pierce counties, said Fairchild.

“I would like to see programs that help kids get out of gangs. We really don’t have a lot of those assets,” he said.

Those involved in gangs in Snohomish County are typically 15 to 19 years old and of a range of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Many are looking for respect and a sense of belonging, said Fairchild.

Recruitment typically occurs at the middle-school or high-school levels, but it can start as early as fourth or fifth grade, in schools, at malls or anywhere large groups gather, he said.

Although Safe Stop director Dave Wood says it’s difficult to attract volunteers on Saturday nights to run the program — they have to undergo background checks — he is hoping to expand Safe Stop into Gold Bar and Skykomish.

“Some gangs are coming to the smaller communities because it’s easier and there’s not as much pressure,” he said, noting that smaller areas lack the anti-gang ordinances, police manpower and alternative activities for young people in larger cities. “People here don’t exactly know what to do.

“My whole concern is to grab this now,” he said.

Christina Siderius: 425-745-7813 or csiderius@seattletimes.com