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Latino Advocacy Groups Criticize Effort to Curb Gang Violence

PUEBLO and Esperanza say the City Council and school district's plan falls short on prevention.

Two Latino advocacy groups on Friday criticized a nascent inter-agency effort to stymie gang violence, saying that although they are impressed by the work under way to help the youths who are already enmeshed, not enough thought is being devoted to preventing them from joining gangs in the first place.

The comments of representatives of the groups PUEBLO and Esperanza came during a biannual meeting between the Santa Barbara City Council and the school board.

Of particular concern to members of Esperanza is the Santa Barbara School District’s proposal to hire two full-time gang outreach workers who would be tasked not only with connecting on a personal level with wayward youths and their families, but also updating authorities on festering feuds that could turn violent.

“The kids aren’t going to like that,” said Jordan Richardson, a volunteer with Esperanza and a Santa Barbara City College student. “They are going to think that that person is a snitch.”

The gang outreach workers — whose combined salaries and benefits would cost the schools a total of $133,000 annually — are just part of the comprehensive effort being proposed by city and school officials.

The wider concept was brainstormed by a task force made up of representatives from local nonprofit organizations and city and school leaders. It was formed at the behest of the City Council after 15-year-old Angel Linares was stabbed to death on State Street in March 2007. Since then, two other local teenagers have been killed in gang-related stabbings.

The idea is to put in place a five-year institutionalized structure — with a full-time executive director — for dealing with the problem. Part of that would involve coordinating the dozens of local nonprofit agencies that already offer services to the at-risk youths in question, but don’t have the time or resources to share much information.

Under the proposal, funding would come not only from the city and schools of Santa Barbara, but also the county, foundations, the business community, UCSB, SBCC and grants. The group wants it to be a South Coast effort, and so hopes to get the cities and schools involved in Carpinteria and Goleta.

This summer, the gang task force also underwent a short-term project to gather information on local gang members. Of the 82 they identified, 52 were school-age and attending local schools, and 36 of the 52 were far behind in credits. 

The task force members held mentoring sessions with the youths, in which they talked about why they got involved with gangs and what goals they’d like to accomplish.

The group found jobs for 10 of the youths, and produced reports on the 52 school-age youths for the administrators at the schools they attend.

In any case, the concerns of Esperanza mirrored some of the same concerns uttered by school board member Bob Noel, as well as a candidate for school board, Jacqueline Inda.

In fact, at the school board meeting Tuesday night, when the board voted 3-2 to hold off on making a final decision on whether to hire the gang-outreach workers until sometime after Friday’s joint meeting with the City Council, Noel’s used similar language to describe his concerns about the job description of those prospective employees.

“Are we going to have these intervention specialists serving intelligence functions for us?” he asked at Tuesday’s meeting. “I would never trust a snitch, and I don’t know any kid who would.”

Noel says the plan needs better balance, saying it is doing well on intervention and suppression, but is short on prevention. The plan, he said, needs to focus more on making the at-risk students feel better connected to the local schools.

As an example of a successful program on this front, Noel has invoked a low-riders bicycle club at Santa Barbara High School called the Don Riders. He also has brought up hand ball, which he said is a popular game among many at-risk teens.

“I’m convinced that kids who experience some success in school are not attracted to gangs,” he said. 

On Friday, Grecia Lima, a new community organizer with PUEBLO, told the school board and City Council that she agrees with Noel.

“We need to put a lot more prevention in this,” she said.

Some members of the City Council and school board said they were open to suggestion, and urged more community participation.

“Maybe it needs to be reworked and refined, and you can help us,” Councilwoman Iya Falcone said. “It’s a baby right now. We need to nurture it.”

School board member Annette Cordero, who is frequently at odds with Noel, cautioned the group that the gang problem is urgent.

Cordero said she remembers how, after the stabbing death of Linares, there was a community forum in which teary-eyed teenagers asked community leaders why it took for someone to get killed before such a forum was organized.

“Every single day, as we continue to debate this issue, there are children who need our support,” she said. “The longer we take to give it to them, the more we lose.”

City Councilwoman Helene Schneider concurred, summing it up with a colloquialism.

“We don’t want the perfect to get in the way of the good,” she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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