Tuesday, October 23, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 33

Santa Maria Sun / School Scene

The following article was posted on December 6th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 40 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 40

City officials work to rally community support for recently adopted youth safety plan


Community members and city officials have spent months arguing over ways to best reduce youth violence in Santa Maria, and an end to the battle is not in sight.

City officials are taking their first steps toward implementing the city’s newly adopted youth safety plan, which was drafted by the Mayor’s Task Force on Youth Safety and approved by the City Council at a Nov. 21 meeting, and staffers are gathering donations, volunteers, and overall community support. But several youth-focused groups and representatives met on Dec. 4 for a press conference outside Santa Maria High School, where they expressed concerns over the City Council’s alleged lack of interest in ideas from the city’s youth.

Santa Maria’s youth safety plan is based on a “PIER” approach: prevention, intervention, enforcement, and re-entry after incarceration. Local youth representatives, including members of Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, criticized the plan at a press conference outside Santa Maria High School on Dec. 4.

“We need our leaders to listen to our youth,” said Abraham Melendrez, of the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). “When the City Council adopted this strategic plan, many youth spoke up saying they wanted to address two additional issues: partnership with schools, to provide counseling services and to help students stay in an engaging school environment, and community policing training, to improve the trust between law enforcement and youth who feel racially profiled.”

Melendrez said those ideas were ignored in the plan. But city officials disagree.

More than two hours after the press conference, the city of Santa Maria sent out a statement regarding youth involvement in the mayor’s task force, which included comments Mayor Alice Patino made during the Nov. 21 meeting.

“I have never excluded any of the students from talking or from speaking at any of the forums we’ve had,” Patino said, according to the statement. “I will make it very clear to them [the school superintendents] that the students want more interaction.”

The Together for Youth and Families Strategic Plan is designed to reduce violence by connecting families with support resources, according to the city, and its success will be contingent upon collaboration between schools, elected officials, local law enforcement agencies, and Santa Maria residents. Recreation Services Manager Teresa Reyburn said the schools and law enforcement agencies have already partnered with the task force.

Still, several local students, including 17-year-old Yolanda De Jesus said they have felt belittled by city officials during meetings and that despite the city’s lengthy plan, little positive action is being taken. But Reyburn said the city needs funding and volunteers before any major implementation steps are taken.

“There are so many things you could do to make a difference in a child’s life,” Reyburn said.

Whether it’s volunteering to act as a youth mentor or donating to the city to help fund its many upcoming social improvement projects, Reyburn said city staffers are open to whatever kind of community support they can rally.

“The best thing we could do is to have mentors,” Reyburn said. “So many kids don’t have parents who are home because they’re working out in the fields or have other jobs with long hours. And if your kids, like mine, have gone away to college and you’re looking to have another child in your life, this could be the answer.”

Volunteers who would like to work directly with kids will be subject to background checks, Reyburn said, and the city is currently considering a number of possible mentor-related programs, including a late-night basketball organization.

Community members who aren’t interested in mentoring can help out with another major obstacle: money. While Reyburn said city staffers are busy searching for funding opportunities—including a highly competitive California Violence Intervention and Prevention grant for up to half a million dollars—options are limited.

Donations could be monetary, Reyburn said, but don’t have to be. Many youth leaving juvenile detention centers or boot camps simply want to move on, Reyburn said, and local business owners could help the re-entry process by providing jobs for convicts returning to Santa Maria. Several kids have also expressed interest in a system that would incentivize good behavior, Reyburn said, through which youths could receive gift cards to local businesses or restaurants for staying out of trouble.

The plan, which Reyburn said was modeled after strategies used successfully in several other California cities, aims to reduce violence by increasing opportunities for youth to participate in community activities. It would also raise awareness to youth-related issues through enhanced communication among stakeholders, including parents.

Through the plan the city would also work to develop culturally competent trauma informed mental health services, among others, and improve its process of identifying youth needs and providing service referrals.

The city also hopes to create a specialized team of law enforcement personnel that would suppress gang activity and create internal processes in the Santa Maria Police Department to accurately catalog and track gang-related offenses. This would help law enforcement share data and intelligence about repeat violent offenders. The city also plans to reduce youth recidivism rates by providing an improved re-entry plan for juvenile delinquents, which would link families to services and community support. But the plan needs funding.

Community members interested in volunteering or donating can call the Recreation and Parks Department at (805) 925-0951, Ext. 2269 or Ext. 2157. The Together for Youth and Families Strategic Plan is posted on the city’s website at cityofsantamaria.org.

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