This the full-length version of a column that also ran in the March 29 print issue of The Independent.
How could a 14-year-old child stab a 15-year-old child to death?
This is a question that many people in our community are asking. The reality is that there is an ongoing animosity between rival gangs in Santa Barbara. Young children are witnessing and becoming involved in progressively more violent conflicts each day and many have seen unimaginable acts by their teenage years. Reports may tend to place blame for gang criminal activity on individual children, but we must recognize the problem as a societal rather than individual one.
No matter how we look at it, is important to remember that they are just kids! They are troubled children who have taken a difficult and unfortunate path into a life of violence and little choice. Over the last week, many of the victim’s friends are grieving the loss of their friend, fearful of future violence, and filled with vengeance. While few gang members from the other side of town have reported victory over upsetting the rival gang, many have expressed feelings of guilt, sadness, and especially fear for what the future will hold.
Many students have asked that they wanted to stay in the school building for fear of what will happen on the streets when they leave. They have even asked if the police would be around in hopes of additional protection. Some of these youth have accepted the possible reality that they too may be the next victim or that they will be responsible for avenging their “homie’s” death. With so much responsibility and anguish resting on these children’s shoulders the possible outlets for this pressure and hurt may be destructive and devastating to our community.
Why are so many youth involved in gangs when there are such negative consequences? Research suggests that many of the kids that do become involved have reported low self-esteem, poor psychosocial health, and poor ethnic identity. Many of these kids have little confidence in academic skills, do not feel good about themselves, and are less likely to feel they have a purpose in life.
When talking to youth affiliated with gangs it becomes apparent that they often cannot easily identify clear goals for the future and have lack of confidence in attaining any positive milestone, such as graduating from high school. Due to the above concerns, some reasons for joining a gang may include gaining a sense of identity and belonging that mainstream society does not promote, as well as gaining a feeling of group cohesiveness, common destiny and a need for revenge. Many of these youth have stated that their “homies” are their family in which they rely on for support and acceptance.
The decision they make at a young age is a choice they have to live with for the rest of their lives. On a number of occasions, various teens have said “The only way to get out is to move out of town, and I can’t afford that, so I am stuck here constantly looking over my shoulder.” Other gang members have expressed an interest in having children so that they can stay home and raise the child rather than being on the streets “gang-banging.” Phrases such as “I wanna have a kid, so I can straighten up my life” are frequently mentioned.
It is alarming that our youth perceive these as the only options for achieving better lives. Although some of these teens feel trapped in the lives they chose, they see few alternatives and continue the vicious cycle of increasingly more destructive behaviors.
What can we as a community do to help?
“It takes a village to raise a child.” In order to help these children and the future children of Santa Barbara this issue must be addressed in the home, school, and community context. If our community can band together to provide our children with the support and care that they need and deserve, we can prevent a great deal of the violence that occurs. Many interventions are in place within Santa Barbara but many are struggling to access the children in need without the support of the larger Santa Barbara community. Some ways in which we can reengage these children include:
- Provide free, fun, and safe structured activities for students to get involved in, particularly after school.
- Develop mentorship programs in order for the students to connect and develop relationships with adults that they can rely on, relate to, and look up to.
- Help these kids find something they can do well and in which they can feel successful.
- Help them get jobs! We may have a bias against kids with shaved heads and baggy pants, but they may be the hardest working employee at the establishment. If they can secure a job they will feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in themselves leading to more positive behaviors.
- Early intervention is the key: Recognize kids that may be at risk and provide them and their families with additional support.
- Promote school bonding though the development of after school activities, programs, and clubs that are appealing and affordable.
- Rather than taking punitive actions, such as suspensions and sending kids to the office, reinforce positive behaviors and promote a sense of community by finding opportunities to teach good citizenship.
- Provide vocational programs, help the students apply for jobs or training programs
- Make parenting classes available to all parents, provide childcare and schedule classes during convenient times for working parents.
- Parents should consistently monitor their student’s behavior and be aware of the student’s whereabouts.
- Promote awareness of the programs available to parents in need of additional supports and connect these resources to the families in need.
- Create a home-school communication system so that parents can stay informed.
By providing students with the ability to work in the community and contribute to society we can help them develop a sense of belonging and pride in the community. If these children feel like they belong they will be more likely to take care of their city rather than be destructive. If we can work together we can solve this problem and we can save our children and the community from future heartbreak.
Amy-Jane Griffiths is a doctoral student in Clinical, Counseling and School Psychology Department, UCSB. My focus and passion is working with gang-affiliated youth in the Santa Barbara Community.