Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Grand jury: Gang activity has decreased in Napa County schools

An estimated 120 out of 4,200 students are affiliated with gangs at Napa and Vintage high schools, according to a recently released grand jury report on gangs. In American Canyon and Upvalley, the number of students in gangs is even lower – practically nonexistent, according to the report.
Gang activity in schools across the county has been controlled for the most part, the 2015-2016 Napa County grand jury reported. Thanks to a community-wide effort to get at-risk youths integrated into school life and educated, gang activity is nonexistent in some schools and has become less severe in others, the jury said.
“Gangs offer that missing link” that some Hispanic youths might need either because they have recently emigrated from Mexico, are not legal residents or have no personal stake in Napa County or California, the report said.
Gang membership can offer companionship, security, respect and sometimes financial support, the grand jury said.
“Education is a centerpiece” of community efforts to thwart gang membership, the grand jury said. By attracting youths toward educational opportunities, the significance and threat of gangs has and will continue to diminish, the citizens group predicted.
The level of gang activity in Napa County has declined in both numbers of incidents and seriousness since the last grand jury report on gangs in 2008-2009, the grand jury said. Gang activity in schools has evolved into more of a social affiliation than a criminal enterprise, it said.
School administrators and law enforcement officials interviewed by the grand jury agreed that gangs primarily target young men from Hispanic families, and that high-schoolers are prime candidates for joining or participating in gangs.
“As second generation Hispanic students become more integrated into the Napa community and schools and as their numbers continue to increase to 50-percent or more of the school-aged population, there is less reliance on gang membership for personal identity, social interaction and ‘protection,’” according to the report.
Efforts since the 2008-2009 report have included putting resource officers in schools, providing a more interesting curriculum to students, and encouraging family involvement in student education. A Gang and Youth Task Force meets five times a year to monitor local efforts.
Napa Valley Unified School District communications director Elizabeth Emmett said that the school district will not comment on grand jury reports until a response has been approved by the board of trustees.
District Attorney Gary Lieberstein said that he agrees with the grand jury’s findings that school resource officers have helped reduce gang-related violence. “There have been a number of incidents over the years that have been prevented because students feel more comfortable reporting what they are hearing to officers (who) they are comfortable with,” he said.
Lieberstein said that he would encourage additional resource officers to be placed in middle schools throughout the county so that those students get exposure to law enforcement on a regular basis. Although it may be a funding issue, Lieberstein said that he believes “it is a very wise use of funds in preventing future gang and youth violence.”
American Canyon High School has no internal gang activity, possibly in part due to its strict dress code, which does not allow head coverings or gang affiliation colors, the jury said. About 30 percent of students have a Hispanic background.
Gang activity is low Upvalley, the report said, with very little gang involvement at both St. Helena High School and Calistoga Senior High School. St. Helena High School, which is 50 percent Hispanic, is “very diligent at prevention,” the jury said. Students must be breathalyzed before social events, like school dances. There are chaperones at events and drug-sniffing dogs are taken through the school periodically.
Although Calistoga Senior High School has the highest percentage of Hispanic students in the county, about 90 percent, it has the least evidence of gang activity, the jury said. The jury attributed this to the high student-to-teacher ratio (16:1) and high budget, the highest per-pupil in the county, that allows the school to “attract excellent teachers.”
Most students also come from low-income families and work after school, limiting the hours of free time they have to participate in gangs.
Napa’s Valley Oak High School, an alternative school whose student population is 73 percent Hispanic, has a gang presence, but the grand jury found that the high student-to-teacher ratio and the presence of Hispanic staff has mitigated the risk of disruptive and dangerous gang activity.
Between 40 and 60 students are affiliated with gangs at Napa High School, whose student population of 1,800 is 50 percent Hispanic, the grand jury reported.
Vintage High School has a student population of 2,400 that is 55 percent Hispanic. About 60 students are affiliated with gangs, the report estimated.
Each school is different when it comes to gang activity and prevention, but most schools utilize the AVID program (Advancement Via Individual Determination), which is directed at first-generation English speakers whose parents did not attend high school. AVID offers individualized oversight and academic help for these students and has been successful in advancing the academic growth of students at risk due to deficient language skills, according to the report.
Instead of AVID, Vintage High School uses a program called “The Legacy Youth Project.”
The grand jury commended the Legacy program at Vintage High School for being a “salvation” to students who may have been either left behind academically or were heading to a criminal future.
The Legacy Youth Project, which began as a way to deal with “identified ‘problem’ gang members,” has grown into a voluntary class that facilitates identity exploration in students. Students “discover their heritage and create pride and respect for themselves and others” while also improving their grades, the jury said.
All Legacy Program students graduate and they are all encouraged to continue their education. “Actual and prospective gang members have been redirected from destructive activities and attitudes to productive efforts,” the jury said. Although the program has been expanded to Silverado Middle School, it has not been introduced in other high schools.
The project began when Vintage’s police resource officer Omar Salem realized that the school needed to have an intervention program in place. Salem and Napa Police co-founded the Legacy Youth Project with Carlos Hagedorn, a professor at Napa Valley College, in response to several gang-related fights that happened at the school, including some that led to arrests.
Salem sat down with gang members. “They all wanted to have a safe place where they felt like they belonged on campus,” Salem said. Many of the youths who were involved with gangs were experiencing an identity crisis – they needed a way to redefine themselves and pull away from the gang, he said.
What started out as an after-school activity went on to be a once-a-week class to being a weeklong, elective credit class. The program features a culturally responsive curriculum, Salem said.
“Legacy became that place where kids who really didn’t have a voice” can express themselves, he said.
Napa Valley Unified School District Superintendent Patrick Sweeney said that the Legacy Project will be offered at Redwood Middle School and to sixth-graders at Napa Valley Language Academy in the fall.
Even though gang activity in Napa County has decreased, it is not “gang free.” Influence from surrounding counties where gang activity is more serious is a threat, but integration and intervention is the best answer to prevent gang growth, the jury said.
June 18, 2016
Napa Valley Register
By Maria Sestito

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