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Groups Pledge to Take Action to Curb Gang Violence

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

April 11 -- Nearly a dozen State, County and local agencies and groups pledged Saturday to take concrete steps over the next two years to curb the gang violence that has simmered in Santa Monica for nearly two decades.

As a candle burned next to State Senator Shiela Kuehl in memory of two young men killed in a gang-related shooting last month, the senator tasked several "action partners" allied with the City to follow through with commitments made at the weekend workshop attended by more than 250 people.

With an emphasis on jobs, education, and improving community relations, many of the "action steps" came in the form of supporting new and existing programs aimed at increasing opportunities for local youths, including those currently in gangs or who have arrest records.

"Action is about doing," said Kuehl, who presided over the meeting and gave the groups a September 1 deadline to report their progress. "Taking it from the idea to action... is going to take all of us."

Representatives from the City, School District, Santa Monica College, the Chamber of Commerce, neighborhood groups, labor groups and three law enforcement agencies -- including the Santa Monica police -- stood in front of the crowded auditorium at John Adams Middle School and divvied up four poster boards full of "action steps" they will take in coming months.

Groups both from within and outside the community will work to increase job opportunities and training, seen as keys to giving at-risk youth -- many of whom are from low-income families -- a means of supporting themselves.

The business community intends to help "provide good role-models" in a new program to mentor 100 at-risk youths, while partnering with local businesses to create more jobs for local youths, said former mayor Nat Trives, who represented the Chamber of Commerce.

Meanwhile, from outside Santa Monica, the California Employment Development Department and the State Building and Construction Trades Council will look to expand employment in the city.

"Kids look at these big trucks the rappers and the dope-dealers have with their thick rims, and that's what they want, but you can't get it working at Jack in the Box," said Jann Whetstone of the State Building and Construction Trades Council.

Whetstone said trade jobs, vocational training, apprenticeships and journeymen positions could be offered through her group in a series of labor agreements with the City and businesses to help youths who are not headed to college and who have had run-ins with police.

"Lets put them to work and let them build the city," said Whetstone, drawing cheers from the crowd, which was broken into several smaller groups over two hours to brainstorm the action steps.

Education will be another key component, as officials from the school district and Santa Monica College got behind several initiatives.

Superintendent John Deasy said the district will commit to several new programs to help youth who have served time in juvenile hall get back into school, increase parent support and family education, develop "culturally competent youth community leaders" and support a "central hub" for neighborhood groups in Virginia Park.

In response to concerns aired during the brainstorming sessions, school officials said they remain committed to instituting a school disciplinary policy that is culturally sensitive.

"It is a big dent in a Latino or black youths' record when they get arrested," said Irma Carranza, treasurer for the Pico Neighborhood Association. "They don't have the same resources that many white families have.

"Latino youths and black youths are being incarcerated disproportionately when involved in a fist fight," Carranza said. "They need to ask themselves whether this is the best way to approach a situation, to help keep them safe."

Santa Monica High School, said Principal Ilene Straus, has made some important policy changes in the last few years to increase cultural sensitivity, including a policy to talk with parents before involving the police.

"From three years ago until now, we've made a lot of progress," Straus said. "But we still have lots of work to do to make sure that everyone is treated fairly."

Calling education a "large part of the answer," Santa Monica College President Tom Donner said the college will also do its part to help, beginning an early intervention program in middle schools to help students explore what they may want to study if they go into college.

The college, which is directly adjacent to the Pico Neighborhood where Santa Monica's gangs have traditionally been active, will also examine "how to work with those students who are in gangs now or are ex-gang members," who may have a difficult time gaining entry to the college because of criminal records, Donner said.

"We are going to give them the benefit of the doubt," said Donner of working with the youths who have been involved with gangs.

Several parents criticized Santa Monica College during brainstorming sessions for cutting vocational classes from their curriculum two years ago, adding that the college should be more oriented towards the community's needs.

"I know quite a few young men who were directly affected when Santa Monica College cut these programs," said Pico Neighborhood parent Gina de Baca. "This is our Community College. I know there are a lot of students who visit from out of town, but it needs to serve our community."

Santa Monica College representatives said the college still offers classes in nursing, cosmetics and electrical and other vocational trades, but that it could "still work harder to better serve the community."

How local, County and State law enforcement agencies interact with the community will also be a component of the plan.

Gil Bautista, a Los Angeles County Probation officer, said his department will begin working "to increase parent and family education support and intervention," while increasing youth counseling and mentoring programs.

"It could be a model for a lot of other places," said Bautista, to cheers from the crowd. "What we want is healthy families, not to tear them apart.

Santa Monica Police Chief James T. Butts, Jr. touted the fact that nearly half of his department is from a minority background, but did not commit to any new programs.

Rather, he said, the police will remain committed to sensitivity training and will work to continue to improve community relations and programs that reach out to youth, such as the Police Activities League (PAL).

The City, said City Manager Susan McCarthy, will remain instrumental in coordinating many of these new resources, launch programs to beautify the City and increase the "linkages between resources, early intervention and prevention to stop youths before they join gangs."

According to police, between 100 and 140 youths belong to three different gangs active in Santa Monica. The "17th Street Pee Wee Locos" is the largest of the three gangs, while the "Little Locos" and the "Graveyard Crips" each have less than 15 members.

Despite a recent double homicide in March -- which police and investigators for the Los Angeles County Coroner's office say is gang-related -- violent gang incidents have been declining in recent years, police said.

In spite of the overwhelming response by the various groups and agencies, some of the youths in the crowd who may benefit from the proposed programs expressed doubts they will work.

"This ain't gonna help. They always have these," said David Nunez, 15 year-old freshman at Santa Monica High School.

"I think what they're trying is good," said Julian Ayala, 16-year-old Santa Monica High student whose brother-in-law, Hector Bonilla, was one of the victims of last month's shooting.

"They're talking," he said. "They're trying to do something, but I'm not sure how much good it will do."

Senator Sheila Kuehl said once she hears back from the various action partners in September, the community can expect more workshops to continue their progress.

"We're going to do this," said Kuehl.

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