Almost two months after a fatal gang-related stabbing in downtown Santa Barbara, community leaders continue to wrestle with the city’s gang problem. At the same time, new details about the events leading up to the death of Luis Angel Linares raise questions about how El Puente Community School and the county probation department deal with at-risk youth and whether any policy could have prevented Linares’s death.
On May 5, an American Civil Liberties Union-sponsored forum, “Gangs in Santa Barbara-Reasons, Rights, Solutions,” assembled experts, former gang members, and community members-each with a unique perspective on the problem. One panelist, Michael Valdez, is a former Oxnard gang member now working with those still involved in gangs. He went beyond numbers and statistics on Saturday, painting a vivid picture of gang life and gaining the appreciation of several people in the crowd for his work. “It’s what I was brought up in, it’s what I knew,” he said of gang life. After serving time in prison for armed robbery, Valdez met former Santa Barbara City Councilmember Babatunde Folayemi, who became his mentor and helped turn his life around. Valdez said it’s time to “close our mouths and open our ears to what they have to say. Everybody says kids come first, but when is that going to happen?”
Panelists as well as audience members, concerned about the classification process, asked about how police target gang members. “We have to look at alternative views to how we approach gangs,” said panel member and UCSB graduate student Jorge Cabrera, citing Los Angeles, a city with roughly 36 gang injunctions which he said don’t work. One audience member mentioned a specific instance at the Santa Barbara Fair & Expo in which kids were removed from the fair for apparently looking like gang members. Once a person is marked as a gang member, the stigma can follow people for life, Cabrera said.
“We don’t do this job in a mechanical way,” Deputy Police Chief Rich Glaus said. “We’re being aggressive to remove a threat. In terms of perception, we’re between a rock and a hard place.”
The forum was the most recent of several town hall discussions to take place since Linares, 15, died from stab wounds after a gang fight on March 14. Police apprehended 14-year-old Ricardo Juarez, who is being charged as an adult for the murder. Juarez is scheduled to appear in court today. In addition, 10 others have been charged in juvenile court with crimes related to the fight, which occurred just before 2 p.m. near the intersection of State and Carrillo streets.
Dr. Paul Amar, an assistant professor in the UCSB law and society program and boardmember of the ACLU Santa Barbara chapter, said the ACLU is promoting citizenship in addition to protecting rights. Amar said the state has more revenue but no creativity in solving problems. Glaus agreed. “By changing behaviors, freedom will be restored,” he said.
Also unearthed recently was the news that Linares, 15, showed up late at El Puente Community School the day before he was killed. Administrators were led to believe he was under the influence of marijuana. He had been attending El Puente since November of last year, after being kicked out of Santa Barbara High School. El Puente administrators follow strict protocol when students are suspected of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The first step is to fill out an incident report, followed by a phone call home. If the student is on criminal probation, the third step is to call the probation department. Linares had been on probation for a fight while at Santa Barbara High as well as for a prior incident in which he was in possession of a weapon, according to Santa Barbara police spokesman Lt. Paul McCaffrey.
Administrators at El Puente called Linares’s parents, who couldn’t get off work to come and pick him up. A message was left at the probation department with no returned call, and Linares was allowed to remain in class.
The next day, March 14, Linares showed up at school and was again suspected of being under the influence of marijuana. When his parents again couldn’t come pick him up, school officials contacted the probation department and were initially led to believe a representative was going to pick Linares up, but a later message indicated that was not the case. Linares was allowed to remain in school that Wednesday as well.
El Puente didn’t have a minimum day that Wednesday-nor does it ever-and Linares didn’t leave school early. Sometime after school let out-dismissal time for El Puente isn’t released by the Santa Barbara County Education Office for security reasons-Linares headed downtown, where he eventually became entangled in the brawl that ended his life.
Santa Barbara County Probation Department spokeswoman Lori Crestfield wouldn’t comment on the Linares case. “We’re bound by law not to talk about juvenile cases,” she said. Crestfield also wouldn’t comment on the procedure the probation department follows in similar situations when a school calls regarding a possible probation violation. Each case is different, she said, and filled with so many variables it is impossible to give a “what if” scenario. She also declined to say how busy the probation department was on the days when El Puente called regarding Linares.
So while it is unclear why the probation department didn’t respond, or what its procedure is once probation officers pick up a student in Linares’s situation, it might not have mattered. Sheriff’s Department spokesman Sgt. Erik Raney said that, in his experience, being high on marijuana wouldn’t have been enough reason to take a juvenile into custody. Such precautions usually take a serious, “pretty egregious” offense, Raney said.
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding Linares’s death, panel members at the gang prevention forum attested that changes need to be made. “The more we discuss the problem, the more we get ahead incrementally,” Glaus said. Vasquez agreed, noting that the first step is reaching out to those who need the most help. “All they need is love,” Valdez said. “Right now they’re just soldiers.”