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School Board to Explore Hiring Gang Intervention Specialists

The $330,000 proposal would place five experts on Santa Barbara high school and junior high campuses, but one trustee suggests the program start smaller.

In its latest attempt to address a spike in youth violence, the Santa Barbara school board Tuesday night will consider spending about $330,000 to hire a handful of street-smart gang-intervention specialists to work on the district’s junior high and high school campuses.

The discussion comes less than four months after the trustees cut $4 million from the Santa Barbara School Districts’ $93 million discretionary budget for the 2008-09 school year, trimming departments such as math, psychology and special education. The district also sent pink slips to 51 teachers, although the final number of instructors who were actually laid off isn’t yet known, officials said Monday.

Michael Gonzalez, the district’s administrator in charge of discipline issues, said his 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.

“I lament the three deaths in our community, and I don’t want any deaths at our school sites,” he said.

If approved by the board, the program would hire 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.

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.

The board is unlikely to vote Tuesday, as the matter is listed on the agenda as a discussion item. On Monday, school board member Kate Parker said she would prefer to see the program start smaller, perhaps as a pilot project at a single school.

“Let’s try it at a school, see what works, what doesn’t work, and see what needs to change,” she said. “That’s what I expect to hear tomorrow.”

Ideal candidates for the job, Gonzalez said, would be people who have overcome adversity in their own lives — perhaps reformed gang members themselves.

“We want someone who has made changes in their lives and aspires to make some changes in other peoples’ lives,” he said.

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. Perhaps more important, Gonzalez said, the ideal candidate would possess a sort of preternatural talent for diplomacy, fitting in with, and bringing together, troubled teens and their families from rival sides of town.

In fact, Gonzalez’s proposal was modeled not on anything currently done in other school districts, but on the diplomatic talents of one Santa Barbara man.

That man, Ross Castro, was employed as a gardener for Santa Barbara Junior High in the 1970s when it became apparent to administrators that he possessed the rare gift of being able to click with at-risk youth, Gonzalez said. Back then, the city was grappling with a familiar problem: How to discourage fighting between factions from the Eastside and Westside neighborhoods, he said. The district promoted Castro — who died in 2005 at age 76 — to become a youth counselor at Santa Barbara High.

A former local leader of the Chicano nationalist group the Brown Berets, Castro, who also co-founded La Casa de la Raza, was able to earn the respect of the disaffected youth, Gonzalez said.

“The common story is that whenever a group of kids got into some kind of hassle, he’d ask the kids to get together to sit down and hammer out some kind of accord,” Gonzalez said.

“We’ve got to teach our young people peaceful resolution,” he added. “We’ve got to teach them that this point of view that ‘I claim Eastside or Westside’ is a very unproductive and narrow world view.”

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

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