TACOMA, Wash. -- New state grant money aims to build the defense against Tacoma gangs targeting middle school students.

They re targeting the young and the weak, said Ottahyo Caldwell, 14.

According to a city gang assessment, Tacoma eighth graders are 33% more likely to be affiliated with a gang than others across the state. Almost half admit they started before 15.

They think it s cool they just want to fit in with a bunch of bigger guys and stuff, said Tanner Rodocker, 15.

To fight the concern, the City of Tacoma is investing $500,000 a year into gang prevention. A new $133,000 state grant will focus on intervention through community groups like the Tacoma Urban League.

These kids are trying to find out who they are, who are they going to become, said Scooter Spencer, a facilitator.

Spencer and other adult volunteers facilitate the program Men in Transition at four area middle schools with students identified by administrators as at-risk for gangs.

A lot of times it s not necessarily I want to be in a gang as much as it s my birth right, said Spencer.

Cerion Hardeman, an eighth grader at Gray Middle School, lives in a single parent home with younger siblings. With his mom at work, he founded the program as a positive way to occupy his time.

If you get involved in a gang, there s a higher chance of you not being successful in life, said Hardeman.

The program comes at a time when city statistics show gang activity in middle schools is increasing by 34.6%. While up to 150 students meet for the program each week, facilitators maintain daily communication with them.

They have two or three easels up trying to figure out which one they re going to draw on and make their permanent picture and we help to guide that, said Spencer.

The grant money will also fund a pilot middle school intervention program for girls. King County and the City of Kennewick were also awarded similar grants.

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