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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on August 13th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 24 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 20, Issue 24

Nonprofit seeks grant to fund countywide gang prevention initiative

By ZAC EZZONE

There have been five homicides in the city of Lompoc since January, along with numerous other shootings and stabbings that didn’t result in fatalities. Many of these incidents involve juveniles, such as 17-year-old Daimien Davis, who was sentenced to eight years in a state juvenile detention center after pleading no contest to assaulting a rival gang member during an altercation in March. 

According to Lompoc’s 2019-21 biennial budget, the city experienced a significant increase in gang activity during the 2018-19 fiscal year, compared to the previous year. In 2017-18, there were 53 gang-related violent crime incidents, including assaults and homicides. In 2018-19, this number increased to 65.

Amid this surge of gang violence in Lompoc, the Community Action Commission of Santa Barbara County (CAC) is trying to secure grant funding to create a youth safety task force in Lompoc, as well as a countywide collaborative initiative to help all cities in the county work together to increase youth safety, said CAC Director of Family and Youth Services Seth Miller.

“One thing I’ve heard since being here … is there’s a lot of siloing of communities throughout the county,” Miller said. “But there is a problem of violence spilling over between the communities.”

Currently, there are two youth task forces in the county. The CAC runs one in South County, which covers Santa Barbara, Carpentaria, and Goleta, while the city of Santa Maria runs the only one in North County that covers the city.

Santa Maria created its task force in 2017, following a rash of gang violence that included 22 homicides over the previous two years, according to city data. Much of the violence was committed by MS-13 gang members from out of town, many of whom were arrested during an operation coordinated between local and federal law enforcement agencies in 2017. 

The violence at the time sparked a conversation among community members about the safety of the city’s youth. These groups urged the city to take action, 5th District Santa Barbara County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said. 

However, when the task force was first created, the Santa Barbara County grand jury and members of the community criticized the effort for not involving youth in the process.

“The jury finds that the at-risk youth and their families that the task force aims to help have little role in developing the envisioned changes and services that would affect them,” a 2017 grand jury report on the task force states.

Since then, the task force has attempted to increase youth participation. Over the last few months of the 2018-19 school year, the city created two teen councils—made up of about a dozen students from Pioneer Valley and Santa Maria high schools—that met with Mayor Alice Patino and a staff member once a month to discuss issues the city’s youth are facing. These meetings will continue now that school has resumed.

From these meetings, the task force has received ideas for programs it can implement, such as creating a map of safe routes students can use to walk to and from school. 

The task force plans to clearly identify the routes with signage, while also increasing the safety of those areas by placing volunteers or city rangers on the streets before and after school, or by asking residents who live in the area to be on the lookout for suspicious activity, said Dennis Smitherman, management analyst with the city’s parks department. 

Smitherman currently oversees the task force, which includes two other staff members who work on it full time. But Smitherman has other responsibilities with the parks department, and the city needs somebody who can lead the task force full time to accomplish all of its goals. The city plans to hire somebody by the end of this year or early next year to fill this need by using revenue through Measure U, which is a sales tax increase voters approved in 2018, Smitherman said.

Whoever does take over Santa Maria’s task force will work with the coordinator of Lompoc’s task force and the South County’s task force if the CAC secures its grant funding. 

Miller said a $1 million grant through the U.S. Department of Justice would cover a four-year period. During the first year, the CAC would establish the task force in Lompoc and then begin creating the countywide collaboration during the second year. 

The federal agency is awarding $1 million to 14 different projects throughout the country and is supposed to announce its decision in early October, Miller said.

The CAC didn’t set out for this grant specifically because of the rise of gang violence occurring in Lompoc, but it did alter its proposal to address this problem. 

“We would have applied for this grant anyway, although I don’t know if we would have looked at Lompoc as carefully had we not seen so much violence happening down there,” Miller said. 

The CAC has been conducting a community needs assessment of at-risk youth across the county over the last year. Results for this assessment haven’t been released yet, but Miller said one of the most significant factors affecting the youth in Lompoc is the amount of time children spend alone after school, usually because their parents are working multiple jobs.

Through surveys for the assessment, the vast majority of Lompoc’s at-risk youth said they don’t attend after-school programs because they have family responsibilities. This differs from other places in the county, like Santa Barbara where the top barrier preventing kids from attending after-school programs is homework, Miller said.

After-school programs are one way that task forces and community groups try to get kids to participate in positive activities, rather than be engaged by gang members looking to recruit kids with minimal supervision and in a vulnerable state.

Lompoc Mayor Jenelle Osborne said the city needs more after-school programs, along with some sort of internship or mentorship programs for the city’s youth to learn more about potential career pathways. 

Osborne said she is grateful the CAC sees the needs for creating a task force in Lompoc, as well as a countywide initiative, especially because the city’s current budget constraints limit its ability to address its gang problems proactively. However, she hopes that if the CAC is awarded this funding, all groups involved can maintain their efforts after the grant’s four-year period. 

“I don’t want us to get to the point that we always assume the gang problem is eliminated; it’s always going to exist,” Osborne said. “We need to find a sustainable model that is proactive, locally supported, locally maintained, and I think this is an opportunity to jump start that.” 

Staff Writer Zac Ezzone can be reached at zezzone@santamariasun.com.




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