Tony Newsom sees crime with the eye of a troublemaker who grew up to be a cop. And the lesson he’s learned is simple: Delinquent kids need attention.
They need, he says, using a phrase that would seem trite but for his earnestness--to learn to be positive.
Newsom now lives by that conviction. Deciding that crime suppression alone wasn’t the answer, he quit his job with the Los Angeles Police Department four years ago to start a youth program aimed at prevention.
“You suppress crime, it will just get worse. It will burst out,” said Newsom, who is still a reserve officer.
On Wednesday, 30 eighth-graders in Santa Clarita completed a course he designed, one of 17 different programs his nonprofit company, Positive Results, conducts in the L.A. area.
All the kids in the program at La Mesa Junior High School were failing classes and some had been in trouble with the law. Many have since staged academic turnarounds--some astounding, others modest.
That’s good enough, says Newsom. Success is when “you give me a kid who is failing and cursing at his mother, and by the end, he is polite to his mother and we are getting a C out of him,” he said.
Newsom’s program is one of scores of local, community outreach programs aimed at steering youth away from gangs and drugs. He is among a small but passionate group of workers who believe their efforts may save the costs of incarceration later on.
Nationwide, serious crime has dropped 7% in the last year, with a larger 11.6% decrease in Los Angeles. In Santa Clarita, where 40% of those arrested are teenagers, the crime rate dropped 17% in the same period.
Demographics and more aggressive law-enforcement tactics are most often credited for the drop.
By contrast, prevention programs seldom track the impact they are having, and there is debate about how effective they really are.
But advocates are firm in their belief that this is the way to bring crime statistics down for good.
In the San Fernando Valley, such programs range from teen-pregnancy prevention groups to softball leagues in crime-ridden neighborhoods. Many struggle along on shoestring budgets, often depending on volunteer labor.
Hope in Youth in Pacoima for instance has helped thousands of children and parents through mentoring and tutoring programs. Jeopardy, which is sponsored by the LAPD, offers recreational activities such as boxing for kids who maintain a C average, and leave their baggy clothes at home.
“You can’t expect a miracle overnight . . . but I see such a difference in these kids,” said Dara Laski, a volunteer for the Police Activity League Supporters youth center in Reseda. The center opened a year ago and offers recreation, tutoring and mentoring free.
“A lot of kids would choose to do more positive things, but when it’s not even offered to them, what choice do they have?” said Sandy Kievman, who runs a Valley youth recreation program called KYDS. In crime-ridden neighborhoods, “what you see is kids just standing around. They do nothing,” she said.
Around the country, researchers are beginning to look at such programs with a more critical eye. “Small wins are the best you’re going to get” from most prevention programs, said Arnold Goldstein, director of the Center for Research on Aggression at Syracuse University. “More power to them. But no one has magic in this business.”
A few years ago, such programs tended to focus on preventing violent crime by teaching children anger management, said David Andrews, professor of human development at Ohio State University, a specialist on preventing violent behavior in youth.
Andrews was involved in research that found those programs to be largely ineffective, he said. More promising, he said, are programs that involve long-term mentoring, often by volunteers.
“If you look at what puts kids at risk, it’s the lack of a caring adult,” he said. “If you can introduce that in the form of a mentor for two or three years, you have a good shot.”
Mentoring is at the heart of Newsom’s program. Raised in South-Central Los Angeles, Newsom said he went through a period of partying with gangs and earning Fs in school before turning his life around. Now he shares that background with kids in similar straits.
At La Mesa, his program takes the form of a once-a-week after-school class. Students who are failing are asked to participate with their parents’ approval.
Newsom encourages the students to talk about the future and make lists of what they want in life.
Typically they say they want cars, houses, clothes or Nikes. “I add it up,” Newsom said. “I say, ‘OK, this is going to cost you $2,200 a month. How many of you make $2,200 a month?’ ”
The students spend the rest of the class figuring out what careers they want to get the things they want, and how to get started.
What emerges are plans that range from the far-fetched--to race BMX bicycles, for example--to the pragmatic, like 14-year-old Alphonso Amore’s plan to work for a city parks and recreation department.
When Alphonso was first selected for the classes, “I was like, whoa. I thought I was in trouble.” But the class turned out to be “cool,” he said. Alphonso is eager to talk about his grades, which he said have gone from Ds and Fs to Cs.
Rebecca Dalton, 13, saw her failing grades turn into A’s. She says she wants to be a lawyer. She was failing, she said, due to “being so worried about other things besides school.”
All told, about 85% of the students in the class will graduate on time, up from the 33% who were expected to graduate, and the rest are expected to finish their credits in summer classes, Newsom said.
Skeptics say the results from prevention programs generally are far from clear. Many intervention programs “look great on paper . . . but there is no scientific evaluation telling us they work,” said Bob Moffit of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Moffit says public money is better spent on law-enforcement solutions--nuisance-abatement measures, for example, that have proven effective in deterring more serious crime, he said.
But those dedicated to steering kids from crime are unfazed by skepticism.
“These kids have pushed a lot of people away already,” said Newsom. “I’m not going to be pushed away too.”
Times staff reporter Beth Shuster contributed to this story.