Community leaders, educators, and youth service providers gathered at the Carrillo Recreation Center on Tuesday for an annual networking event organized by the South Coast Task Force on Youth Gangs.
The meeting, centering on discussions on compassionate and restorative approaches to alleviating gang and related issues among youth, featured a keynote address from Jerry Tello, the cofounder of the National Compadres Network and the director of the National Latino Fatherhood and Family Institute, as well as a speech from Mayor Helene Schneider.
Task Force coordinator Saul Serrano said the meeting was intended to “increase partnerships and foster relationships between youth service providers,” as well as to work on creating a greater “safety net for youth.”
The Task Force was founded in 2009, two years after the fatal gang-related stabbing of 15-year-old Luis Angel Linares, as a way to represent vulnerable youth and to provide support to youth services agencies. Since its founding, the number of juveniles serving probation terms in the city has decreased every year, with 170 youth serving terms in 2013 compared to 306 probations issued in 2009; the 2014 number, lower still, would be available in two to three weeks, Serrano said. He credited the combined efforts of youth service providers for the decrease, saying, “Solutions don’t just belong to one agency, one program; they belongs to the community.”
Mayor Schneider lauded the improvements. “We have seen amazing progress in the last five years, with the number of youth on probation terms dropping dramatically,” she said. The summit, she said, was “an opportunity for us to take [gang] challenges and have a meaningful dialogue about it, to create a better community for everyone who lives in it.”
Tello advocated a compassionate, less punitive approach to working with vulnerable youth, saying adults, teachers, and counselors ought to remind youth of their inherent value instead of treating them as problems to be fixed. “Before we talk about the presenting problem, their issue, their treatment plan, maybe we could bless them first, tell them how wanted they are. Maybe we can help them find their sacred purpose,” he said. “Some of us get so entrenched in the problem statement, the problem issues, that we forget what are the true teachings.”
Tello encouraged adults to approach youth without judgment. “That’s what our young people deserve and what they need, someone to stand with them without criticizing them,” he said.
The event concluded with a Youth Service Panel, featuring Aaron Harkey of the Santa Barbara Unified School District, Christian Jaimes of the CAC’s Las Comadres Program, Tom Verica of the Santa Barbara Child and Family Clinic, and Sara Grasso of the Daniel Bryant Treatment Center. The panel was moderated by Raquel Lopez of La Casa de la Raza.
The group similarly spoke to the importance of understanding the underlying emotional and situational difficulties facing youth. Aaron Harkey, Restorative Approaches district coordinator and AVID district director, said fostering “restorative dialogue” — conversations between students and their teachers — has had much greater disciplinary effects than suspension.
“Studies have shown that schools with zero-tolerance policies in place alienate students more and more over the years; discipline in our schools nationwide seems to be systemically unjust,” he said. “Talking to people respectfully and letting them know that you care? That always works.”