On March 15, a 13-year-old girl was abducted from outside the Hazleton Elementary/Middle School, her head covered and she was driven to the Altmiller Playground, where she was beaten. The incident, according to police, was part of a gang initiation, a growing problem in Hazleton and elsewhere, state Rep. Tarah Toohil told a state House Judiciary Committee hearing in Harrisburg on Tuesday. The committee unanimously approved Toohil’s House Bill 2507, which would give the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing the authority to provide tougher sentences for crimes in which an organized street gang is involved. It will be considered by the full House. Erik Arneson, communications and policy director for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, said the Toohil bill and a series of other House and Senate bills related to gangs are all being considered and viewed supportively on a bipartisan basis. Toohil, R-Butler Township, said similar initiations and gang violence are playing out throughout the region and the state, in urban and rural areas. Drug dealers from New York and Philadelphia, she said, are finding the state’s highway access and police department staffing issues enticing. “Hazleton, although not a major city, has had some big, major issues,” she told the committee. Toohil, who serves as a member of the Hazleton Area School District’s Gang Task Force, said she took input from law enforcement, school officials and community members when crafting the bill. “Other cities across the state are now facing a growing gang issue,” she noted, referencing Allentown and Reading as examples. State legislatures across the country have dealt with the gang problem by adopting bills geared toward harsher punishments aimed at making gang activities or participation less attractive. Toohil used a Georgia bill as a point of reference and noted that dozens of states nationwide have laws on the books that reference street gangs. Pennsylvania, as of now, has none. “The state of Pennsylvania is behind the times with dealing with gang activity,” Toohil said. “My proposal would give police departments a tool to legally identify these crimes and judges the power to impose stronger sentences on those who commit them. Hazleton and other communities have seen an increase in gang-related activity and we need to do something about it now, before more innocent victims suffer.” Her bill earned praise from Committee Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Harrisburg. “Congratulations, Rep. Toohil, and thanks for your leadership on this bill,” Marsico said. RELATED BILLS • Rep. Sid Michaels Kavulich, D-Taylor, sponsored House Bill 2506, which is in the Education Committee awaiting a hearing. Bill 2506 does numerous things related to gang activity, including establishing an anti-gang counseling program to provide materials, support and financial assistance to school districts to establish pilot programs designed to educate students and parents about gang activity. • Senate Bill 965, sponsored by Pileggi, would make it a misdemeanor to solicit a gang recruit. His bill also would make it a felony to use intimidation to force someone to join or stay in a gang and it would be a more serious felony if the intimidation included assault. The bill is cosponsored by local Sens. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, and John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township. It was reported out of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee on Tuesday with two committee members voting against it.