Thursday, September 11, 2008

Gang Task Force in planning

The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly. After months of talk that began in January, the South Coast Task Force on Youth Gangs was formed to implement gang abatement strategies in Santa Barbara.
The Task Force, in what is being billed as a “community collaborative,” is made up of key players from every youth-focused agency in the county, including the Santa Barbara Police, Santa Barbara Sheriff, Santa Barbara School District, Probation, and community outreach organizations.

This summer, the Task Force implemented a short-term intervention program to work with current gang members, those currently incarcerated at Los Prietos Boys Camp anticipating release, and gang affiliates.
The purpose of the program – get these kids out of gangs and keep them out.
Youth were approached by members of the Task Force and given the opportunity to participate. Eighty-two signed on. Of the 82, 52 were school-aged; 30 were high school graduates. For those who said they preferred the gang lifestyle, Police Chief Cam Sanchez didn’t mince words. “You can either get out of the gang or you will end up in prison,” he told them.
Gang specialists or “outreach workers” — current city and county staff and community-based outreach staff — worked with the youth. Individual support plans were tailored to each participant. At the end of the summer, 230 student mentoring sessions and 30 family intervention sessions had taken place. Seventy-five families received community support services. A number of the high school graduates are now attending City College. Ten obtained jobs.
On Monday morning, approximately 70 people filled a meeting room at Franklin Community Center to hear the results of the summer program, make suggestions, and move forward with making the program permanent.
Task Force and outreach workers agreed that Santa Barbara does not need more youth programs. Rather, we need better coordination between and among existing programs.
Of the 70+ organizations in Santa Barbara serving our youth, approximately 27 target and provide services to at-risk and gang-affiliated children and their families. Until recently, no one in government had a complete listing of these service providers.
Outreach workers also stressed the need for permanent staff to oversee the coordination of services and serve as gang specialists.
Outreach success will be measured by the number of gang stabbings in Santa Barbara, the number of gang fights in schools, and how many youth violence events law enforcement has advance notice of. To-date, law enforcement has not been aware of any youth violence events prior to their occurrence.
The Task Force agreed to move forward with a 5-year plan. The first step toward reaching that goal was to convince the Santa Barbara School Board to fund two outreach workers.
The Task Force took their proposal to the Santa Barbara School Board Tuesday night.
Dr. Brian Sarvis, Santa Barbara Schools Superintendent, requested approval of funding for the outreach workers (or gang specialists). “Rather than continue to discuss the issue,” he stated, “the time is now.”
The district has found money in categorical funds to pay for the outreach workers: There would be no cost to the District’s General Fund. Reiterating Dr. Sarvis’ sense of urgency, Board Member Annette Cordero, who attended the Task Force meeting Monday morning, was outspoken in her support for the specialists saying, “We have students in crisis right now.” Police Chief Sanchez told the school board emphatically, “I need your help.”
In a disappointing 3-2 vote, the Board postponed their decision until after they meet with the City Council tomorrow. They hope to gain a better understanding of the city’s financial commitment to the South Coast Task Force proposal before moving forward.
On the brighter side, the Board did approve with minor changes a district-wide dress code that gives individual schools the authority to prohibit gang-related attire. After legal review, it was determined that the district did not have the authority to ban gang-related attire but individual schools do have the authority if they believe specific attire distracts from or threatens the safety of the learning environment.
The most disturbing moment of the School Board meeting came when Kate Smith, a candidate for a seat on the School Board, suggested, during public comment, that she could better get kids out of gangs by offering them hip hop lessons. Her comments on the dress code issue were unintelligible.
Back to the brighter side — the City Council has made a budget adjustment allowing for the hire of six more police officers. I’m unclear at this time whether this constitutes a permanent bump in our force — from 141 to 147 — or if these officers will fill positions left open upon the retirement of senior officers. For now, we’re up six.
All the research and experiential data has shown that individual mentoring is the only way to get kids out of gangs, keep them out, and prevent them from joining a gang in the first place. The South Coast Task Force on Youth Gangs is on the right track. Let’s hope they don’t get derailed by bureaucratic infighting and budgetary restraints.
At-risk youth who leave gangs and become productive members of society become taxpayers rather than liabilities. Given the current state of our current economy, we can use all the taxpayers we can get.
The Task Force is looking for grant writers and in-kind donations of accounting services, office space, etc. If you are interested in helping or would like more information about the Task Force, you can call the office of the Chief of Police at 897-2396.

Gina Perry writes a political column for the Daily Sound that appears Thursdays. She can be reached at

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