Thursday, August 14, 2008

Schools look to curb violence


A discussion on the feasibility of hiring six gang specialists to help stem escalating gang violence in Santa Barbara was discussed Tuesday night by the Santa Barbara School Districts Board of Education. And for now, it appears the majority of the board is in favor of such positions, just not six of them.
Many of the board members called for a pilot program, which would include the hiring of three or four gang specialists. The cost for each specialist is estimated at $66,400, which includes a starting salary of $48,600 and nearly $11,000 in benefits. Six specialists would cost the district about $400,000; a sum board member Bob Noel said was too steep.

“I have great reluctance to support this amount of money,” he said. “I want to see a list of what’s not going to get the money. We have lots of needs.”
Noel issued a lengthy list of comments, questioning the coordination of such a program and insisting it be audited by an outside agency to ensure it works – something he vowed to call for whenever the board implements a new program.
While Noel wasn’t shy about his reluctance to support such a program, board Vice President Kate Parker and board member Annette Cordero said the proposal to hire gang intervention specialists has merit.
“This particular proposal brings a very positive approach to the issue,” Cordero said. “It seems to me reasonable to try something different.”
Over the past year and a half, gang violence has risen drastically in Santa Barbara, with three gang-related killings in that time. In all three instances, the victims were 16 or younger, and in all three cases, juveniles have been charged with murder. While those involved come from different sides of the same town, they have one thing in common: At one time or another, they’ve all been students in the Santa Barbara School Districts.
Districts Superintendent Brian Sarvis said he and other school officials have regularly attended bi-weekly, collaborative meetings on gang violence over the summer. At these meetings, Sarvis said much has been accomplished, but one important piece of the puzzle currently missing in the fight against gangs is someone in the schools and on the streets dealing directly with at-risk youth.
“It’s obvious from all of that effort that we have a lot of community agencies that work with kids and do fine work,” Sarvis said. “But we think for gang violence, what our community needs most is people on the streets working on gang issues and we think we need to take the lead on that because we’re concerned about the safety of our kids.”
Sarvis also said he hopes other local agencies, such as the city, would help the school district pay for the specialists.
Sarvis said he hopes the specialists will be able to infiltrate gang life to a certain extent, and also focus on junior high age students, who he said aren’t always served by local youth groups like Turf to Surf and Los Compadres.
But many questions remain as to how such gang specialists would operate and be managed. A board agenda letter composed by District Director of Student Services and Compliance Michael J. Gonzalez says the success of the gang specialists would be measured by the number of gang-related assaults occurring in schools and in the streets.
Noel wondered if data that shows the involvement of district students in such events even exists. Gonzalez said it does, but it rarely makes it beyond the confines of his office. After being prodded by Noel, Gonzalez said he would begin distributing that information.
Also of concern for the board was who the gang specialists would answer to and how their time would be spent. Sarvis said the specialists would spend part of any given day on campus and the other part in the community.
According to Penny Jenkins, president and CEO of the Santa Barbara Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, such gang prevention specialists in the schools have been tried before, and they worked.
She said a similar spike in gang violence 14 years ago prompted community leaders to form a collaborative effort, which secured substantial grant funding for things like the school intervention specialists. But when the money dried up, so did many of the programs.
“It’s something that could be done again with a lot of help,” she said. “I truly, truly think that this is a problem that can be handled. I really believe that we can do this together. This is not like a completely new phenomenon.”
After the meeting, Sarvis said the board’s concerns about the particulars of the position are understandable, especially given the cost. But he said it’s important to remember there is no easy or clear path to preventing gang violence.
“Those were reasonable questions on their part,” he said. “Having said that there’s not a clear blueprint for this and there’s no clear research that says just do this and you’ll take care of your gang problem.”
As to how the district will pay for such positions, Sarvis said he’s not sure about that either. He said funding left over from last year that was designated for specific issues like campus safety, which may not have been completely spent, could be used when the balances become known. Aside from that, he said this year’s funding has been spoken for. As a result, the board could dip into the general fund to pay for the specialists. However, Sarvis seemed less worried about how it will be paid for, and more concerned that the specialists get to work quickly.
“We frankly don’t know where [the money] would come from,” Sarvis said. “The big question is can we afford this, and I believe as a community, we cannot afford not to do it.”
Principals and administrators at the district’s secondary schools are expected to hear the proposal to hire the gang specialists in the next week. Sarvis said he hopes it will be back on the board’s agenda on Aug. 26.

1 comment:

Mark M. Alvarado said...

I think it is healthy that the Santa Barbara School Board debate the value for hiring Gang Specialists.

A Gang Specialist cannot be just anybody who has a degree. They have to be able to communicate on many levels. They have to be skilled in resource management. They need to know how the gang culture thinks and operates and most of all they should be able to balance their relationships with students who are associated or belong to a gang, so they are effective and provide positive outcomes.

The idea of hiring Gang Specialists could be a waste of time and money if it is not stratigically incorporated with the community's overall effort to reduce gang violence.

I think it is an excellent opportunity but not the solution. You don't want the positions to be an extention of law enforcement. The positions will be forced to deal with social and domestic problems with the hopes of getting the students on track to graduate. That should be the focus.