Effort to Fight Gangs Faulted

Times Staff Writer

A recent study has found that half of the 26 agencies providing gang prevention services to middle-school students through the city's L.A. Bridges program are failing to meet performance standards, leading city officials to terminate the contract with one program and put six other ventures on probation.

The L.A. Bridges program was designed to help keep middle-school students out of gangs by providing them with after-school sports programs, tutoring, field trips, counseling and anger-management classes as well as parenting classes for their mothers and fathers. It is set up to serve 5,200 students a year at 26 middle schools.

Six years and $50 million later, the latest evaluation indicates L.A. Bridges continues to be dogged by problems, including low participation by parents and students at several middle school sites and a lack of documentation of results. The review was done by the Community Development Department, which oversees the program.

The report card comes as Los Angeles is struggling with an increase in gang violence that has contributed to a 10% increase in homicides in 2002, when 659 killings were reported.

"Based on what I know, the program has to be retooled," said Rick Tuttle, the former city controller who released an audit in 2000 that recommended the program be shut down and overhauled because of mismanagement, high administrative costs and a lack of proof that it was reducing gang-related crime.

The program survived Tuttle's criticism because of strong support in the City Council, and it has a $13-million budget this fiscal year. It is being recommended for continued funding next year by Lillian Kawasaki, general manager of the Community Development Department.

"The evaluation showed that certainly there are areas that need improvement, but overall we are able to quantify improvement in the performances," Kawasaki said.

Mayor James K. Hahn continues to have confidence in the program despite the evaluation results, said Deputy Mayor Matt Middlebrook.

The mayor met last week with representatives of some L.A. Bridges agencies to learn more about what is working and what should be scuttled.

"He always sees room for improvement, which is why we are doing these evaluations," Middlebrook said.

"He is not overly concerned because the six agencies put on probation have various levels of problems. It doesn't mean they aren't helping. It just means they are not meeting all of the goals, and our message to them is to do better."

The program was launched in 1996 in response to a rash of gang killings, including the shooting death of 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen, whose family made a wrong turn into a Cypress Park alley in their car and was ambushed by gang members.

The city requires each L.A. Bridges contractor to maintain a caseload of at least 50 students considered to be at high risk for joining gangs and 150 lower-risk students. Each agency must provide documentation, including sign-in sheets showing that the high-risk students are getting counseling, anger-management training, educational, tutorial and homework assistance and organized sports and recreation activities.

They also must have a "Safe Passages" plan that identifies homes or business that children can duck into if violence erupts on their way home from school.

The latest evaluation, submitted a few weeks ago to the mayor, looks at the six-month period ending June 30, 2002. It concluded that one agency had to be terminated and 14 others have problems that require corrective action.

City officials said the program administered at Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista by Project Heavy West has shown "unsatisfactory performance" in three reviews. Problem areas include low attendance -- it enrolled 46 students when 150 were required -- and the lack of any sports or recreation programs. The agency also was not consistently operating a "Safe Passages" program.

The city is replacing the agency with the Venice Community Housing Corp., which will operate the program at Twain.

Officials of Project Heavy West could not be reached for comment.

The six agencies placed on probation were El Centro de Amistad at Fulton Middle School; Asian American Drug Abuse Project at Mount Vernon Middle School; Children's Hospital at Bancroft Middle School; Children's Hospital at Le Conte Middle School; the Helping Everyone Clinic at Audubon Middle School, and New Directions for Youth at Pacoima Middle School.

Each agency will be reevaluated in six months and could lose its contract if improvements are not made.

The program at Fulton maintained only 31 of the highest-risk students in a given month, while at Mark Twain there were only 28 clients in April. Other programs met the goals for high-risk students but did not sign up sufficient numbers of lower-risk students.

Six agencies were rated as "needs improvement," and must draft a corrective action plan.

Two others were cited for failing to keep proper documentation and financial records.

Ed Viramontes, executive director for New Directions for Youth, said his agency has corrected financial reporting problems that led to its being put on probation.

He believes the program is helping young people resist the temptation to become involved in street gangs.

Viramontes' agency has used federal funds to give computers and training to young people and their parents, and plans a field trip soon that will provide students with a tour of UCLA. "We are making a difference," he said.

Even without the latest performance evaluation, the program has been the subject of criticism.

"That is $50 million down the drain if what the city wanted was a gang prevention program," said Malcolm W. Klein, a professor emeritus at USC who has written several books on gangs and juvenile justice. "If they wanted a youth services program, that is fine. But they never allowed this to be a gang prevention program."

Rather than provide tutoring and sports to middle-school students all over the city, Klein said, officials should work in selected high-crime areas, identify the students being recruited into gangs and target them with programs to help them resist the pressure.

Klein was part of a panel that created L.A. Bridges. But he says he has been "out of the loop" since he issued a 1997 report warning that the program would fail unless it was directed at specific gangs in specific areas of the city."I have been worried for five years that this program was not having an impact on gangs," Klein said.

Middlebrook said Hahn may seek improvements to the program but will remain supportive. "With all the gang activity in the city, L.A. Bridges is an important component in trying to address that," he said.

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