Monday, March 24, 2008

Leaders meet again on youth violence


Community leaders continued to work on strategies to combat youth violence on Monday, discussing progress on proposed school resource teams and an inventory of service agencies as part of an ongoing effort organized by the City of Santa Barbara.
Much of the discussion centered on details of the school resource teams, which would target the most at-risk and gang-involved youth in the community with a specific educational plan and wrap-around services.

Fred Razo, director of Juvenile Court and Community Schools, said with 10 weeks left before summer vacation, he is optimistic the committee can put that group of teens on an education-oriented path.
“We have a wealth of experience in our community,” he said. “…I don’t believe this issue is overwhelming.”
The first issue they face is identifying those teens considered to be the core contributors to youth violence, Police Chief Cam Sanchez said. While the strategy planning committee is sensitive to privacy and legal issues, he emphasized the importance of actually putting together a list of those to target with school resource teams.
Once those students are found, an educational profile for each will be developed, Razo said, examining their truancy rates, educational standing, and success on the state’s High School Exit Exam, among other factors.
Then they will be paired with school counselors to receive information on educational and vocational options, as well as greater understanding of their academic progress. Most at-risk youth don’t even know how many academic credits they have or need to graduate, Razo said.
“We’ve got disassociated young people who have missed a lot of school,” he said. “So the idea is to bring them back to school.”
At the same time, they will be connected to service agencies and nonprofit organizations in the community that fit their needs. Ben Romo, director of community education special projects for the school districts, said that part of the puzzle will be critical and suggested creating a point of contact — a leader to oversee and guide youth through the entire process.
Razo said attendance, GPA, weekly progress reports, student conference attendance and other factors could be used to measure the success of the school resource teams. He hopes to have the plan in place in the next few weeks.
Although the concept seemed favorable to many on the panel of community leaders, several brought up suggestions and issues. Frank Banales, executive director of Zona Seca, expressed concern about the effectiveness of school counselors.
“Sometimes you need counselors who also think outside the box to really reach these kids,” he said.
Superintendent Dr. Brian Sarvis agreed, calling the ability of school counselors to connect with at-risk youth a critical aspect of the resource team concept.
Matt Sanchez, a youth mentor, said the committee should take advantage of people who are already working on the streets with youth, those who know their families and have a personal connection. The county’s deputy chief probation officer for juvenile services, Martin Conoley, echoed those sentiments, describing the strategy for combating youth violence as 30 percent program and 70 percent relationship.
“The criminal justice system is very good at apprehending people and putting our focus on telling them what not to do,” Conoley said. Instead, the group needs to tap those with street credibility to help show kids what to do, he said.
Even as the committee discussed the particulars of school resource teams and progress of a comprehensive directory of youth services, Cam Sanchez reminded all in attendance that gang crime is continuing with an average of three assaults per month.
He also mentioned that police recently arrested a 13-year-old and 15-year-old for armed robbery. Neither teen had a criminal record, he said.
Babatunde Folayemi, another mentor heavily involved in the youth community, also weighed in, echoing comments he made in the committee’s previous meeting on March 11 calling for community understanding.
“There are a lot of young kids right now who are working very hard to get out of this kind of lifestyle,” he said. “It’s very important that the community realizes and accepts the fact that they want to get out of it. … Let’s not make our children the enemy.”
To close the meeting, the group heard from Fernand Sarrat, a leader with the Collaborative Communities Foundation, a recently formed group of youth mentors and community leaders also working on the youth violence issue.
Sarrat said a community forum is being planned for May 29 and is expected to involve approximately 150 parents, youth and agency leaders to open a dialogue, provide a venue for new voices and help shape the path forward.
The committee members seemed open to working in conjunction with the Collaborative Communities Foundation and receiving updates on its progress, but emphasized that the city needs to remain the leader in the process of developing a long-term strategy.
Banales, acting on a comment by Councilmember Grant House toward the end of the meeting, also suggested establishing a subcommittee dedicated to fundraising for intervention and prevention measures. That topic will likely be discussed at the group’s next meeting, planned for 8 a.m. on April 7 at the Franklin Neighborhood Center, 1136 E. Montecito St.

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