Former gang member Willie Singleton disliked school in Pasadena so much, he skipped a month last year.
“I was going (to school) for nothing,” said Singleton, 15, a ninth-grader at Pasadena Continuation High School. “I’d rather hang in the streets.”
He often spent his days shooting dice, watching television or talking with friends. His divorced mother didn’t know about his absenteeism because he would only go home after regular school hours.
Singleton seemed headed for trouble last spring. According to Pasadena police, he was “at risk” of dropping out and becoming a criminal.
Assigned to Problem Students
So police assigned one of their youth advisers to try to turn Singleton around.
The department’s 10 youth advisers help students who have disciplinary and attendance problems. They sometimes meet individually with the teen-agers, take them out to eat or on drives. They listen, encourage and give advice. They do many of the things done in other police departments by civilian staff professionals or police officers.
But Pasadena’s youth advisers are 18- to 22-year-old students, many of whom at one time found themselves in Singleton’s position, at the crossroads of making crucial decisions about life.
Donald Cunningham, the 22-year-old assigned to Singleton, said: “When I was growing up, nobody gave us any goals. There was no reason to go to school.”
Cunningham often skipped school just like Singleton used to do. But Cunningham decided to stay in school, and now he’s a student at Pasadena City College.
The youth advisers “can relate to these at-risk kids because of their age and because of where they come from,” said Officer Bobby Lomeli, one of the two youth adviser supervisors. “Most of these kids relate a lot easier to a youth adviser than to an older person.”
Many of the advisers come from the same neighborhoods, attended the same schools, played at the same parks and hung out in the same places as many of the at-risk kids. That’s why police put up flyers seeking applicants for jobs as youth advisers at the same schools, parks and recreation centers.
The advisers are chosen by a panel of police officers and civilian employees. Once hired, they receive periodic training during one-day seminars on subjects that include drug abuse, child abuse, planned parenthood and dispute resolution.
Police budget $66,000 a year to pay for the program that includes a one-week summer camp for about 50 at-risk youngsters and the salaries of the 10 regular youth advisers. The funds also pay for the salaries of 10 temporary youth associates, “at-risk” students hired to assist the advisers during the summer.
The advisers work up to 19 hours a week year round, helping up to five youths in individual meetings two or three times a week. They are paid $7 an hour. But most spend many more hours each week on the job.
Youth adviser Rohn Amegatcher said he was called late one night by an 11-year-old boy whose father had beaten him. Amegatcher rushed out and calmed the boy, who was waiting on a street corner. Later, with Amegatcher’s help, the father entered an alcohol rehabilitation program.
“Forget about being a worker,” Amegatcher said, "(the boy) became like my brother.” The 19-year-old Amegatcher is a student at Pasadena City College.
The advisers wear light-blue polo shirts that have a round youth adviser emblem. Under the eyes of their supervisors, they go to schools, malls, parks, sporting events and social gatherings in blue vans to mingle among crowds of youth people, four or five times a week.
One regular stop is the Jackie Robinson Center, a multipurpose community center in northwest Pasadena. Director Prentice D. Deadrick said the blue-shirted youth advisers were an important part of security at center activities. He said many youths identify the advisers with police, which decreases the potential for violence.
Advisers and Friends
But most of the students see youth advisers as friends. According to adviser Tone Randle, 20, some students take pride when a youth adviser greets them by name in front of their peers. “Now we are like heroes,” Randle said.
The advisers look for youths who show signs of problems at home or school. Sometimes they will identify students who seem to need special attention. Others, such as Singleton, are referred by school administrators.
School administrators told Pasadena Police Officer Phlunte Riddle about Singleton. Riddle, one of the supervisors of the program, started showing up at Singleton’s house, making sure he went to school. Riddle “started nailing me,” Singleton recalled. “I had to go to school.”
Lomeli estimated that youth advisers worked with 400 young people from February to June of this year. About 90% of those youngsters have shown some improvement in school attendance or in their grades, he said.
The kids singled out are not the “hard-core gang-bangers,” Lomeli said. “These kids have to want to be helped.”
And not all of the students who are taken under an adviser’s wing become success stories.
Randle recalled a 13-year-old boy who “acted like an angel,” whenever he was around. But the boy was later arrested for selling drugs.
Younger Age Targeted
At the outset of the program two years ago, Officer Dennis James, a former supervisor of the program, said 14- to 15-year-olds were targeted. But he found that youth advisers had to “go for a younger age because they were already starting to act up.”
Now they’re seeing youngsters like Carlton Callins, a husky 11-year-old seventh-grader at Wilson Middle School. A “discipline problem,” Carlton was often sent to the dean for fighting--students and teachers--and “cussing out teachers.”
After four months of meetings with adviser Andre Hunter, Carlton said he still fights sometimes at school, but his attitude is getting better. “I want to help people,” he said. “I just want to change my attitude.”
Lomeli considers Singleton one of the program’s success stories.
In April, adviser Cunningham began meeting Singleton for drives, lunch and trips to the library. But Singleton had reservations.
“At first I didn’t think (Cunningham) would know where I was coming from,” Singleton said. Through their talks, he realized Cunningham “knew what I was going through.”
Singleton began to look forward to his weekly visits with the youth adviser. He said it was a time he could get away from a lot of things that he wanted to avoid--such as the fights he used to have while he was a gang member.
Singleton is back in school now and doesn’t plan on skipping out anymore.
In fact, when he missed the school bus one day recently, he called Officer Riddle for a ride.
“Most of it is listening,” said Tamara Anderson, a 21-year-old youth adviser. “Usually, there’s nobody there to listen.”