Santa Maria fights gangs at their roots
Local groups battle to save the city's most vulnerable members from gang influence
BY SHELLY CONE
In TV, movies, and likely the psyches of many middle-class suburban families, gang members are all the same: criminal thugs from poor minority families with broken homes or a drug abuse background. In reality, that's only partly true, according to representatives of local agencies that work with gang members on a regular basis. Still, the stereotype manages to work against community efforts to combat the real problem.
Behind the criminal behavior and the tough exteriors, many men and women who turn to gangs are seeking something more, perhaps a life of acceptance, security, and unity that they don't receive from their families or community. The gang lifestyle provides that for them and, in turn, individuals pledge their loyalties--and oftentimes their lives.
"Many times the kids that get into gangs are really bright kids, they just need some attention," said Sgt. Russ Mengle of the Santa Maria Police Department.
And providing attention is exactly what many social service agencies are trying to do.Replique Montre de Luxe
There are between 2,000 and 2,500 tracked and documented gang members in the Santa Maria Valley, said Cpl. Louis Tanore of the Santa Maria Police Department's Gang Suppression Team. He said that these gang members are identified as such through tattoos or other markers, self-admission, criminal records, parents, or known association with gangs.
There are about four active gangs, with many smaller gangs that don't do as much. Two of the most active gangs are relatively new to the Santa Maria Valley, but they've nonetheless quickly caught the attention of the police department because of their notoriety.
The police department started seeing a few gang members from those gangs, possibly in town to recruit, and their numbers quickly grew.
Prompt response from the department quelled the growth and activity of those gangs, and today police continue to track them.
The other two gangs, which originated in the '70s, are familiar to police, as well as long-time residents. But simply because there are gangs here doesn't mean the average resident is at risk.
"Most gang violence is gang between gang," Mengle said. "Our concern for the average citizen is what happens when that criminal activity spills over and affects the average citizen."
Mengle said that the city saw a good deal of gang violence in the '90s, and the police department responded by forming the Gang Suppression Team. Since then, violence has been kept in check.
According to the police department, criminal gang activity had been rising, but leveled off last year. Overall, Mengle said there's no reason for the average resident to worry.
"There's no place in this city that I wouldn't feel comfortable taking my family," he said.
"Many times, our concern is gang members in the schools. Gang activity in schools is far too common," Mengle said. "We want to keep the learning environment as positive as possible."
To that end, each high school and middle school in the Santa Maria-Bonita School District and Santa Maria Joint Union High School District have a full-time assigned police officer, and Santa Maria and Pioneer high schools have full-time probation officers on staff.
But it's not just gang activity on school grounds that authorities worry about. It's the high level of recruiting that takes place.
At a recent forum on gangs held at the Santa Maria campus of Allan Hancock College, a Santa Barbara County Probation Depart-ment employee, Tania Whitman, urged the community to look beyond stereotypes and view gang members as individuals. At the forum authorities explained to the public what kind
of youth is at risk for gang involvment. Whitman said that they are honor roll students, and they are truants. Some have substance abuse backgrounds, and some don't. Some come from two-parent families, and others come from broken homes.
What they do tend to have in common is a sense that they don't belong, that they aren't secure and have nothing better to do. Such individuals are the ones gangs seek out to recruit. And the recruiting can extend to the elementary school level.
Kevin Carey, senior deputy public defender for Santa Barbara County, said that prospective gang members are often attracted to gangs because they have the same basic needs as all people--but their needs aren't being met. Kids join gangs because they have a need to feel secure, because they need attention, or because they feel discriminated against. Sometimes it's even generational--their parents were gang members, Carey said.
Sometimes, parents don't even know what's going on with their kids, either because the adults aren't there or because they can't be there. Immigrant families in which neither parent speaks English are often targets.
In such families, a child becomes "parentized," a description used to describe how he or she acts as interpreter and a link between the parents and the world around them, according to Santa Barbara County Juvenile Court Judge James Herman. Often such a child will take care of all of the family's financial and legal transactions and essentially steps into the role the parent would play. With that kind of influence and responsibility, the child may be in a better situation to hide gang involvement.
Authorities said that often parents simply don't know what their child is up to or who he or she is associating with.
Mengle said that police recently broke up a gang fight and the father of one of the youths drove up and said he had no idea his child had such involvement.
"He took some measures right then and there, and we haven't had a problem with that kid since," Mengle said.
Located in the Evans Park projects area, the Evans Park Boys and Girls club has been a haven for youth looking for something to do for the last five years.
"A lot of these gangs, they want these kids when they're recruiting. They'll tell them, 'C'mon man, I'll give you protection, things you want, love, everything you don't get at home.' So we try to provide that for them. A lot of these kids have no direction," Director Eddie Galarza said.
The area was once considered fairly dangerous, particularly because of the territorial claim by the Northwest gang. The area has seen some changes since--with the Boys and Girls Club, a police substation, and even a mobile clinic where anyone can come to get free medical care. One Saturday a month, the youth wake up early, get together, and clean the neighborhood.
Galarza believes that the club plays an important role in keeping youth off the streets. He said that his Boys and Girls Club has about 50 members, 20 of which are teens.
The members can participate in any of four programs designed to build self-esteem, confidence, and direction. The first program is directed to kids ages 6 to 9. The Smart Kids program is a national awareness program for young kids, in which they learn their phone number, what to be aware of when they walk home from school, and not to talk to strangers. Part of the program involves building self-esteem. Galarza said that the children are given mirrors and told to look at themselves and describe what they like.
"You'd be surprised at what they say. Sometimes they see nothing they like about themselves, and that's a reflection of what they get at home," Galarza said.
The Boys and Girls Club offers another program called Street Smarts, which includes three modules designed to create conflict-resolution skills and positive peer helpers. With the help of field trips to places like police stations, kids learn how to overcome conflict and maybe get a little understanding of what they may be seeing at home.
Smart Girls is a program that targets girls between the ages of 12 and 16. A female advisor comes in and talks to the girls about issues that girls face.
The top group at the Boys and Girls Club is the Keystone Club, a program for 14- to 18-year-olds, with a heavy focus on leadership skills. The program teaches kids how to be role models to younger Boys and Girls Club members.
"It's surprising," Galarza said. "If they are on the verge of joining a gang, it completely changes them."
Galarza said that former Keystone Club members have gone to college and found good jobs. They often come back and share their stories with the current clubbers.
Galarza takes pride in the fact that there are so many teens involved in his Boys and Girls Club.
"Sometimes it's hard, because you really have to have a lot of good activities for them to do," he said. "Sometimes it's hard because it's closing [for the day] and they don't want to go home."
Though there are places like the Boys and Girls Club, there's still a void that needs to be filled in order to keep kids safe from gang involvement.
"Some kids come here because they don't want to be out there," Galarza said, "because they are intimidated and that way they can say, 'I already belong to something.'"
Plenty of other community programs exist to help kids who are reaching out for help. Community gathering places offer them an alternative to getting into trouble. Santa Maria's Abel Maldonado Community Youth Center offers kids a place to gather and hang out. The Paul Nelson Aquatic Center and the YMCA both offer structured programs and classes for youth.
For those already sliding into troubled territory, programs like Grizzly Academy--a boot-camp-style program in San Luis Obispo County--offers a second chance for at-risk youth to finish school and get skills and education to apply to their life. Los Prietos Boys Camp works with juvenile offenders to teach discipline, leadership, job, and life skills.
"We're never going to get rid of the gang problem. That's not realistic," said Chief Assistant District Attorney Gene Martinez. "The best we can hope for is to control the gang problem."
Gangs are cyclical, Martinez explained. Jailed members can continue to direct activity from behind bars. Moreover, gang members who are jailed can easily be replaced by new recruits or members who rise up in the ranks.
In light of such a system, he said, gang intervention programs, as well as early prevention strategies that start in elementary school, are needed.
"The reality is some of these kids, they're aware of gangs, they're aware of drugs," Galarza said. "It's a whole new generation. You've got to start [gang prevention] young."
But the youth have to also be on board and want what help the community offers.
"If you really want help there is help," Galarza said. "That's the way I see it. Nobody can force you to do anything."
INFO BOX: Community solutions
The gang forum series continues Feb. 26 with Telling Our Own Stories, featuring The Drama Kings, a group of youth from Los Prietos Boys Camp, and on March 4 with Community Solutions, featuring a discussion on programs, solutions, and local resources. Both sessions will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Marian Theatre on the Allan Hancock College Campus in Santa Maria. For more information, call 922-6966, Ext. 3209.
Arts Editor Shelly Cone can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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