Programs fight gang enrollment in SLO County

Pedro Arroyo leads a Youth in Action class recently at Paso Robles High School.
Photo by Joe Johnston  12-08-11
Pedro Arroyo leads a Youth in Action class recently at Paso Robles High School. Photo by Joe Johnston 12-08-11 jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

O­ne by one, five freshman boys filed into a small conference room at Paso Robles High School, dropped their backpacks and eased into oversized leather chairs.

Once settled, they launched into a discussion of last week’s lesson: a story about a boy who has to choose between spending time with a longtime friend or with members of his basketball team.

“Can anyone relate to the situation?” asked Pedro Arroyo, a deputy probation officer who meets with the teens one hour a week.

Several hands shot up.

One teen said he was invited to a barbecue with some friends, but then two girls called and asked him to hang out — a decision that didn’t seem as difficult as Arroyo’s example.

“You can kick it with your homies anytime,” the boy said, grinning as he explained his choice.

But while the subject matter remained light, the underlying goal of the program goes deeper than the boys likely realize: to give them the tools, confidence and resilience to resist gang involvement and criminal behavior.

The program, Youth in Action, is one component of a countywide Anti-Gang Coordinating Commission that was created in 2008 in response to an increase in crime.

The Probation Department, the sheriff and the district attorney partnered, brought in numerous community leaders and created a three-prong strategy to address gang problems. One part is prevention — reaching out to youth before gangs do.

One newer program offered by the Sheriff’s Office aims to counter the early recruitment of gang members by teaching students how to deal with anger issues and other life skills.

Sixty-three students at Shandon Elementary School completed the 12-week Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) program. A second course is being taught at Lillian Larsen Elementary School in San Miguel, and more will be planned in other areas of the county, said Sheriff’s Office spokesman Rob Bryn.

This and other programs may be crucial in reversing a trend of increasing gang-related violence involving juvenile offenders. According to the District Attorney’s Office, three juveniles were defendants in gang-related cases in 2006. By 2007, that number had risen to 18 juveniles; it increased to 21 last year.

To combat that, local program providers say it’s essential to provide mentoring, life skills and a safe place to hang out, specifically between the hours of 3 and 6 p.m.

“The No. 1 thing you have to offer is consistency and projects that are meaningful,” said James Statler, the former supervisor of the youth development program Lifebound Leadership.

The program had a teen center in Nipomo until last summer, when it lost most of its grant funding because of a change in state rules.

Now called Generation Next, the program still provides a few office hours one day a week at Dana Elementary School and has a teen center in Paso Robles. But staff members are concerned about the effect the closure of the Nipomo center will have on local teens.

“The teen center provided them with an identity connected to a positive program,” said Colleen Ryan, health educator for Generation Next. “There’s really nothing to backfill that presence in the community.”

But it’s too soon to tell what other programs could take over that role in Nipomo. Local advocates say they are just trying to keep current programs afloat.

“There’s less grant funding than there used to be, and the problem is that San Luis Obispo County doesn’t compete well with Los Angeles and Fresno and Oakland,” said Marci Powers, coordinator of the anti-gang commission. “We’re trying to keep programs vital, and it’s tough.”

The Youth in Action program is a good example of what can happen when willing teens are paired with a positive role model.

Over the past few years, Arroyo has worked with about 180 boys, mainly ages 10 to 15, who have had poor school attendance or grades or discipline problems.

In the 2009-10 school year, the program worked with 60 boys, about 82 percent of whom completed the year-long course. In a survey, the boys listed the top things they learned in the program: trust, anger control, to have a good time and respect others, problem-solving skills, and to be drug-free.

“A lot of times kids will tell me they’re here because they’re bad or in trouble,” Arroyo said. “I say, ‘I don’t think you’re bad. You’ve made poor choices, and you’re here so you can learn a couple of things and use them to act differently.’ “

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.