Monday, April 7, 2008

Work continues on youth violence issue


As local leaders continued developing strategies to address youth violence Monday morning, short-term plans shifted to launching a pilot program to target a group of at-risk youth during the summer.
Several leaders on the committee view the pilot strategy as a catalyst for creating a long-range plan to combat gang violence and aid marginalized youth in Santa Barbara and neighboring communities.

T“We’re going to take it one life at a time, one family at a time,” Police Chief Cam Sanchez said.
As of Monday, the subcommittee working on the short-term program had identified 45 at-risk teens they plan to target with the program, which would develop an educational profile and comprehensive support plan for each individual.
Chief Sanchez said the concept would also be broached at a camping trip for gang-involved youth organized by Matt Sanchez and his All For One mentoring program. He said he hopes all 48 teens on that trip will be interested in participating.
The focal point of the plan is neighborhood intervention specialists and mentors who would link youth to various community service agencies. Martin Conoley, county deputy chief of probation, described a vision of 20 to 30 such individuals employed full-time, funded by the city and local foundations.
“They are individuals who know the neighborhood and are able to broker some services,” he said.
As the mentors develop a relationship with youth and their families, they will refer them to agencies for parenting classes, therapy, community service work, athletics and social events, peer mentoring, and other services.
“This is spectacular,” said Ben Romo, director of community education special projects for the school districts. “Just excellent.”
Calling the pilot program a “breeding ground” for developing the long-term plan, Romo said it would offer an opportunity for leaders to work out kinks and come up with a formal model.
Chuck Slosser, president of the Santa Barbara Foundation, offered insight into getting the local foundation community involved on the funding front, urging the committee to come up with a complete package to present, including how many mentors are needed and how much money is being requested.
He also questioned the long-term leadership of the planning process, suggesting the committee create a position for a full-time director. That could bring about a planning grant from foundations, Slosser said, to support the hiring of a facilitator.
City Administrator Jim Armstrong cautioned against holding up the process by waiting to hire a leader, instead suggesting the subcommittee continue to examine the issue and determine if additional staff support is needed.
Even as local leaders discussed plans for a pilot program this summer, others described their vision for a larger focus on youth mentoring. During an update to the committee on recent actions taken by the Collaborative Communities Foundation, Fernand Sarrat, a leader with the organization, said bringing youth back into the fold of society is a crucial first step.
In addition to suggesting increased coordination between various mentoring organizations, he said a grassroots approach — such as holding neighborhood cleanups and offering small grants to neighborhood businesses for internships — is important to developing neighborhood cohesion and giving the community more responsibility.
Organizers with the Collaborative Communities Foundation are planning a community forum for May 29 they hope will help shape that grassroots approach.
Bill Batty, executive director of Family Services Agency, also updated the committee on the progress of a comprehensive inventory of programs targeted at gang-involved youth. He presented the initial draft of the inventory and asked for help, particularly from mentors and youth, in editing and determining its ultimate format.
The group also heard a presentation from Cecelia Molina, principal of El Puente Community School. She described the 160 students who attend the school as youth with behavior issues, from those with truancy problems to others expelled for bringing a weapon to school.
Molina’s model for handling the 90 boys and 70 girls who attend El Puente involves a three-pronged approach: safety, education and counseling.
“The priority is always safety,” she said. “At no school are you going to find safety as you are going to find at El Puente.”
With 18 known gang members and many affiliates, school officials maintain constant supervision, run cameras in classrooms and have students sign a neutral territory agreement.
Molina said while the school doesn’t offer foreign language or lab science classes, its focus is on core classes needed for a high school diploma.
“Our education system is just as strong as our safety,” Molina said.
When she came to the school 20 years ago, starting as a teacher, Molina said it severely lacked counseling services. Now El Puente partners with Fighting Back and Los Compadres, and has two licensed, full-time therapists on campus as well as several part-time mental health experts.
“But these programs keep getting cut back,” Molina said.
With teachers serving as case workers — combating rebellious attitudes, building relationships and offering hope — she said it takes about three semesters for a student to work through the system, either graduating or returning to their local public school.
“When you see this cycle, you are going to see the negative,” she said. “But you are also going to see the positive.”

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