Santa Monica Lookout
Shifting Policies Toward Youth Violence Has Long History in Santa Monica
By Jason Islas
June 20, 2013 -- Over the past 13 years, Santa Monica has spent millions of dollars to build and sustain a robust network of nonprofits and school-related programs in an attempt to curb youth violence.
In light of a spate of recent shootings, the City and its nonprofit partners on Tuesday announced they would “shift” that network -- geared toward addressing causes of gang violence like social and economic disparity -- to focus on mental health services and family support.
The proposed shift comes on the heels of the revelation that 24-year-old John Zawahri, the gunman responsible for a June 7 shooting rampage that left six dead, had “fallen through the cracks” of Santa Monica's network of nonprofits and after-school programs.
The June 7 shooting was followed over the next four days by two gang-related shootings that left two young men injured and one man dead.
This isn't the first time the City of 90,000 residents -- which allocates about $40 million a year to youth services, divided roughly in half between funding for schools and funding for other programs -- has had to adjust its strategy.
“What happens is there's an inclination to go back to business as usual and change is thwarted,” said Oscar de la Torre, a School Board member and the interim director of the Pico Youth and Family Center, a grass-roots organization that targets at-risk youth between 16 and 24 years of age.
In the last decade, De la Torre added, every episode of youth violence has been followed by a groundswell of community and official enthusiasm to address the root causes. But that enthusiasm eventually wanes, he said.
The first major effort by activists and City officials to attack the problem came after a string of gang-related shootings in 1998 claimed five lives in two weeks. Attention was suddenly focused on the Pico Neighborhood, Santa Monica's poorest community and ground-zero for gang activity.
The response was to allocate $350,000 in 2000 to fund the Pico Collaborative, an unprecedented effort to give at-risk black and Hispanic youth in the Pico Neighborhood an alternative to gangs.
But that eventually fell apart, losing its funding the following year due to internal conflicts. The dissolution of that plan took place against a backdrop of more violence, with three young Santa Monicans involved in shootings at the end of 2000 and the beginning of 2001.
After two men were killed in a gang shooting in 2005, then-State Senator Sheila Keuhl rallied community leaders, City and School District officials and residents to come together in forums and brainstorm ways of addressing gang violence. Much of the feedback focused on jobs and education.
“The best prevention program is a solid public education,” said de la Torre, referring to the $20 million a year the City provides to the School District.
In 2006, then-Police Chief James T. Butts, announced that the Santa Monica Police Department would work with neighboring agencies to attack gang violence in the region. The announcement came two weeks after Eddie Lopez, a 15-year-old honor student at Santa Monica High School was gunned down.
In a statement released following the 2009 murder of Richard Juarez at Virginia Avenue Park, PYFC officials contended the plans made during Keuhl's 2005 forums on gang violence “have not been fully realized or consistently assessed.”
“Marginalization and lack of economic or educational opportunity directly contributes to the loss of hope in our youth, which in turn leads to violence and self-destruction,” the statement read.
“The failure to implement a comprehensive plan rests in our inability to raise this problem to a level of importance and amend the existing infrastructure to facilitate the completion of multi-agency goals, outcomes and objectives,” PYFC officials wrote.
That was precisely the thinking behind the Cradle to Career Initiative started by the City the following year. By better coordinating the City's nonprofits to help disadvantaged youth get better access to jobs and college counseling, the City hoped to create a wide range of alternatives to the gang life.
After four years without a gang-related killing, Santa Monica is once again calling for a reevaluation of its approach to youth violence.
“Violence is sporadic,” said de la Torre. “All this violence happened and now I think things are going to change.”
Repeating the 2005 response by Keuhl, the PYFC will hold a town hall meeting Thursday to brainstorm solutions to the problem. The Town Hall will be held at the PYFC, 715 Pico Boulevard, starting at 6 p.m.
"Although we have reduced gang and youth violence in recent years, the incidents of the past few days are a wake up call that our City must not regress in its effort to address youth and gang violence,” de la Torre said.
“The purpose of the Town Hall is to engage the community in a discussion on proactive policy solutions to violence and trauma."
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