Redirect Fuel of Gang Fire

No one denies the need to make it perfectly clear that no youth gang is going to outnumber, outgun or out-resolve our public safety forces. There must be no doubt, even for two seconds, about who rules on the "turf" of Ventura County's schools, school buses and other public spaces.

But we're fooling ourselves if we view law enforcement as the entire solution.

After four violent gang attacks at or near Ventura County schools in recent weeks, school and law enforcement officials are stepping up security efforts--and rightly so. Gang members need to know that the police are watching them and have the resources to track down and lock up those who turn to crime. An upgraded Juvenile Hall and stiffer sentences for the worst of the young offenders would help.

Yet as we fight this fire with fire, we must also step up our efforts to reduce its fuel supply: Too many directionless kids have too much free time, too little family support and a slim sense of responsibility or future.

"Our justice system works well for those who have something to lose," says Carmen Flores, manager of the Challenge Project in Oxnard. Kids who don't see themselves that way are dry tinder for the spark of gang violence.

The Challenge Project is one of dozens of efforts across Ventura County that are combating the gang problem person by person, through mentoring and other strategies.

Have they solved the problem? Of course not. But no one can say how much worse the epidemic would be if not for their efforts.

El Concilio del Condado de Ventura has worked for many years in Ventura County's Latino communities to battle ills ranging from drug addiction and teen pregnancy to illiteracy and gang membership. A current focus is male responsibility, says Lettie Alvarez, coordinator of the group's Breakthrough Youth for Success program.

"I call it attitude recovery," she says. Youths learn how to communicate with their parents and how to prevent emotional abuse at home from turning into violence on the street.

Many who work with young people agree that one reason they turn to gangs is because they lack the sense of connections and self-respect that make society function. The best antidote for that, they say, is a job or a meaningful relationship, whether that means a caring girlfriend or a mentor who takes an interest.

If Ventura County is to reduce the appeal of its youth gangs in a lasting way, it must accompany tighter security with stronger support of our Police Athletic Leagues, Boys & Girls Clubs and after-school programs.

Several area cities have drawn up youth master plans that address the employment, training and recreational needs that can turn young people away from gangs. But some, most notably Ventura, have not found the money to follow through.

Cities that place their youngest residents low on the priority list should take another look at the result. Private citizens or businesses that would like to add their support to a local gang-prevention effort can get in touch with one by calling the nearest police station.

Fight fire with fire, yes. But we must also step up our efforts to turn potential fuel to more constructive ends.

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