In his low-key but determined manner, Tony Ostos is on a mission to destroy a myth.
"It is a myth," Ostos said, "that youths who live in gang areas have no choice but to join gangs."
Ostos, 31, places his belief and determination on the line daily as project instructor of an innovative anti-gang program for 10- and 11-year-olds in the Paramount Unified School District.
Ostos, who often wears a corduroy sports jacket and his shirt open at the neck, is very serious about his work. But even when he is performing a hand-held puppet show depicting a gang-related tragedy or answering questions of fifth-graders about gangs, Ostos does not overstate his case.
"I don't try and scare them," he said. "I present the facts. Gangs are dangerous. Gangs can lead to death. (Gang members) can be killed. Their families can be killed."
Serves as Role Model for Youths
The program, sponsored jointly by the city and the Paramount school district, started four years ago. Ostos was hired to run the Alternatives to Gang Membership course after a lengthy search, said Pat West, director of the city Human Services Department.
"He is an excellent role model for youths. He is totally committed," West said.
Ostos has been determined and committed since before graduation from Bassett High School in La Puente in 1972. He decided early that he would not join a gang, even though there were plenty around. He also resolved to go to college.
"I decided by the time I was a junior in high school that gangs were a terrible waste, a dead end," Ostos said. "I had a friend in high school who got mixed up with a gang. He ended up robbing a bank (while still in high school) with another gang member. He spent five years in prison."
Ostos said he recalls in particular one Paramount student he taught. When the youngster joined the program at age 11, he was hanging around gangs, sniffing glue, writing on walls and getting into fights. Today, the student is doing well in his high school classes and no longer associates with gangs, Ostos said.
Anthony (Tony) Ray Ostos, who was born near the Echo Park area of Los Angeles, is the first and only member of his family to attend college. His mother is a homemaker and his father is a maintenance supervisor for the county Parks and Recreation Department.
Ostos paid his way through Rio Hondo College by working full time as a parks maintenance man for the county.
He received a fellowship from the national Institute of Mental Health to UC Riverside, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1978. While at UCR, Ostos said he attended a psychology course taught by professor Ray Garca who encouraged students to return to their communities or similar communities and work on some of the problems those areas were facing.
"I was impressed with the idea of contributing something to your community," said Ostos, who did volunteer work in the black and Latino community in east Riverside while attending the university.
After graduation from UCR, Ostos enrolled at Cal State Long Beach and completed courses for a master's degree in community clinical psychology. He will get the degree once he finishes his thesis, he said.
"I have just been too busy to finish," he said.
He Held Tutoring and Counseling Jobs
While studying for his master's, he worked part time in counseling and tutoring-related jobs. His jobs included tutoring adults without high school diplomas for the Long Beach Unified School District and teaching basic skills to youths in the area. He also was a graduate assistant at Cal State Long Beach for a community psychology clinic outreach program in west Long Beach, where he did counseling, and served as a fifth-grade counselor at Hudson Elementary School in the Long Beach Unified School District.
Ostos was a county probation officer from 1980 to 1981, when budget cuts ended his job. Then he was hired by the city of Paramount, which pays him about $28,000 a year.
Fifth-grade students at six of the district's eight elementary schools, which are in areas with heavy gang activity, attend one-hour classes during a 15-week course designed to show them the negative effects of gang activities on them and their families. Community meetings also are held with parents; films on gang violence are shown and parents are encouraged to keep their children from joining gangs.
Father of 2-Month-Old Son
"We try to convince the parents of how important it is to communicate with their children," said Ostos, who is married and the father of a 2-month-old son.
More than 1,800 students have completed the program, Ostos said, and although it is difficult to measure progress, city officials and school personnel say they believe it is successful.
"You can look at my campus and you don't see the gang uniforms, the khaki, the T-shirts and black shoes that we were dealing with a couple of years ago. I think this is a direct result of the program," said Bertha Garcia, a counselor at Clearwater Intermediate School, one of the two junior high schools to which Ostos-trained elementary students must transfer.
"I think Tony's down-to-earth approach, his ability to relate to the students, contributes to the success," Garcia said.
For his part, Ostos said, "this is where I want to be. It all ties together with what I have worked for, gone to school and been trained for--helping the community."