Saturday, March 24 , 2018, 8:11 pm | A Few Clouds 59º


School Board Balks at Gang Specialists Proposal

Santa Barbara trustees see the merits of an idea to assist at-risk teens but say the staff plan lacks focus.

The Santa Barbara school board Tuesday night sent back to the drawing board a staff proposal to hire a handful of street-smart gang-intervention specialists to work on the district’s junior high and high school campuses.

Michael Gonzalez, the Santa Barbara School Districts’ administrator in charge of discipline issues, had originally proposed hiring five specialists to serve six schools at a total cost of about $330,000. On Tuesday a majority of board members said they’d prefer to see a pilot project first, perhaps with just one specialist at one school. The trustees did not vote Tuesday, and the matter is expected to come back to the board in the coming weeks.

“I see real value here,” board member Nancy Harter said. “I just don’t want the urgency to take over before we get all the pieces worked out.”

The idea of the program is to find individuals with whom the at-risk students would identify — perhaps reformed gang members.

Superintendent Brian Sarvis said the proposal is part of a concerted effort to prevent the kind of violence that has resulted in the stabbing deaths of three teenagers in two years around Santa Barbara.

“We’re worried we may have more students who erroneously think they should carry knives to protect themselves,” he said.

“We need to be on the inside of gangs, and we’re not,” he added. “The deaths are not the only stabbings we’ve had in this community. That tells us we don’t know enough about what goes on with these kids. We don’t have people who are close enough to them.”

Under the proposal, the specialists would be paid nearly $49,000 a year, plus benefits. They would spend some time on the campuses, but also venture into surrounding neighborhoods to speak with parents about the risky behavior of their children, Gonzalez said.

Several board members criticized the proposal as lacking in focus.

“At some point or another you have to ask what the powers of these people are,” trustee Bob Noel said. “Can they detain? What is their relationship to campus safety officers? Who answers to whom with their division of labor?”

Harter added that the proposal didn’t mention whether the specialists would be answerable to principals, and whether there would be any training.

“I’d want to know more about the actual work they’d be expected to do,” she said.

She also pointed out that the proposed starting salary for the position is higher than that of a beginning teacher.

But trustee Annette Cordero said the lack of definition also has its benefits, noting how the program is modeled on the success the schools had with a similar program years ago.

It involved just one “specialist,” a man named Ross Castro, a former Brown Berets who was employed as a gardener for Santa Barbara Junior High in the 1970s when it became apparent to administrators that he was able to click with at-risk youth. Castro went on to resolve many disputes before they became violent.

“His position was relatively … undefined,” Cordero said. “That actually contributed to his success because he wasn’t confined to focus on specific things. … The students really saw him as one of them.”

But she added: “At the same time we do want to be clear about what the position is.”

The current proposal called for hiring a specialist for each of the San Marcos High, Santa Barbara High, La Cumbre Junior High and Santa Barbara Junior High school campuses, as well as a fifth specialist to split his or her time at Dos Pueblos High and Goleta Valley Junior High schools. In addition, the district would ask the Santa Barbara County Education Office to foot the bill for an additional specialist at El Puente Community School, which mainly serves students expelled from the traditional schools. The district may also ask the city of Santa Barbara to chip in.

As the proposal is written, qualified candidates would not need a level of education beyond a high school diploma, but would need to be fluent in both English and Spanish.

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

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