Monday, June 16, 2008

Grand Jury takes on gangs


In the wake of two gang-related homicides over the past year, local nonprofits, the City of Santa Barbara, law enforcement and other agencies have joined forces to combat escalating violence, but these efforts still lack leadership, a Santa Barbara County Civil Grand Jury report says.
The report, titled “Anti-Gang Efforts in the City of Santa Barbara: Who’s in Charge?” compares the city’s recent spate of gang violence to a similar trend in the early 1990s, which was also punctuated by a high-profile murder.

After that homicide, local leaders established the Pro-Youth Coalition in 1994, which through the use of grant funds, managed to significantly decrease youth violence between 1997-2002. But when the money dried up, so did the Pro-Youth Coalition.
Youth violence rates have skyrocketed since, with the Santa Barbara Police Department reporting a 151 percent increase in gang-related offenses from 2003 to 2006.
According to the Grand Jury, which interviewed a number of civic, nonprofit and law enforcement leaders prior to releasing the report, Santa Barbara became “complacent or in denial,” about gang violence during this time.
But the wake-up call rang loud and clear on March 14, 2007, when 15-year-old Luis Angel Linares was stabbed to death during broad daylight in a massive gang brawl at the intersection of State and Carrillo Streets. A 14-year-old boy was charged with his murder and is now awaiting trial.
Four months later, 16-year-old Lorenzo Valentin Carachure was murdered near his parent’s home on San Pascual Street.
The subject of youth violence is once again at the forefront of residents’ interest. The difficult part, the report says, will be to find a way to polish and sustain current efforts.

A Cause

The vast majority of the city’s 768 known gang members, about 90 percent, are Hispanic, the report shows.
Many of these young people live under poor economic conditions and often feel unwelcome at school. The report says some are victimized by racism, which it calls an “undeniable factor in the formation of gangs.”
For many Hispanic students, once they’ve fallen behind in school it’s difficult to catch up, and many, nearly 50 percent, are hampered by the necessity to learn English during the early years of their education. The report says 45 percent of the city’s elementary school age children in 2006-2007 were English-learners. As many as 62 percent qualified for free lunches that year.
Troubles at school are often compounded by troubles at home. Many parents of gang members work two to three jobs and are rarely home. When the parents are confronted with the issues facing their children, the report says they’re often in denial, or unable to deal with it.
On the other hand, gangs can offer young people fellowship, self-esteem and respect on the streets.
“One’s ‘homeboys,’” the report says. “Become a second family and are defined by their neighborhoods.”
Constant budget cuts to education haven’t helped the situation.
As a result of less funding, including the federal No Child Left Behind Act, students have access to fewer electives like art and music courses, and instead focus much of their time preparing for qualifying exams, the report says.
“No segment of the student body should feel second rate or incapable of succeeding in school,” the report says. “Making sure that these students do not become disengaged from educations is critical for the community. School cannot afford to prepare these students for failure.”

What’s being done?

Since the March 2007 homicide, the Santa Barbara City Council has allotted an additional $100,000 to the police department to reinstate bike patrols in West Side neighborhoods and initiate them on the East Side. The report says the city gave another $174,000 to the city’s Parks and Recreation Department for after-school programs.
Through its apprenticeship program, the city has provided temporary or part-time employment to 37 youths — a number it had hoped to expand with an $863,000 grant.
But since receiving the grant at the beginning of this year, the report says Jobs for Progress, Inc., which administers the program, has hired a coordinator and three case managers but few youths have been employed. The report says the process of finding jobs for youth who meet the criteria takes time.
The Santa Barbara County Probation Department created two school-based officers to keep tabs on young probationers. Each officer has a caseload of 20 students.
The Santa Barbara School Districts limited its number of reduced school days as a result of the March 2007 stabbing, which occurred on a short school day.
But school officials may not have acted quickly enough. The report says in 2004 a gang specialist from the Santa Barbara Police Department recommended the district stagger the minimum days to avoid gang activity on State Street. Gang activity spiked so drastically on such days, the police referred to them as, “gang fight days,” the report says. For whatever reason, the district did not act on the recommendation, and instead created zero-tolerance policy on gang attire, gang colors, gang symbols and gang behavior, the report says.
“However, in 2007, as soon as a gang confrontation resulted in a student’s death, the districts acted within hours to review its policies and eliminated most minimum days,” the report says.
The report says two resources that have not been taken advantage of in Santa Barbara are its institutions of higher education and private industry. It says efforts to link college students and businesses with community programs serving at-risk youth have been “sporadic.”
One group, called the Collaborative Communities Foundation, has taken this approach.
The report calls the foundation a “broad based effort to connect community members that can and will reach out to gangs.”
This group successfully brokered three days of peace for East Side, West Side and Goleta gangs earlier this year — a feat the Grand Jury said represents the willingness of gang “elders” to talk.
The foundation is also working with the private sector to craft programs that target at-risk youth.
Another group, the Strategic Planning Committee on Youth Violence, which met bi-weekly at first and now meets once per month, consists of a mix of city, nonprofit and community leaders.
Most recently, this committee launched a pilot program that serves 80 at-risk youth and their families by sitting down one-on-one to discuss individual needs.
It is this committee that the Grand Jury believes can provide the citywide, stable leadership it believes is currently lacking.
The demise of the city’s efforts in the 1990s was fund based, and the Grand Jury believes this will persist if the various agencies fighting gang violence are forced to rely too heavily on grant funds.
All too often, the report says local nonprofits compete for the same funds and when there’s not enough to go around, programs fall by the wayside.
But the report says none of these obstacles are too great to overcome if the city is able to guide the various interests to a common goal, and ensure they remain fiscally viable.
“The city still needs a permanent safety net in the form of coordinated programs among community groups, schools, and city government,” the report says. “Santa Barbara has many community leaders willing to participate in these efforts, but they need direction. The Santa Barbara City Council needs to establish a permanent commission or select a commissioner to take the lead in working with at-risk youth. To do any less runs the risk of becoming complacent again, inviting a new cycle of violence.”
The city council and school districts have 90 days to respond to the report. The entire report is available at

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