New teen-led group seeks non-violent solutions to local gang issues
The paper shook in Taylor Burdick’s hands, but her voice remained clear and steady as the Santa Cruz High School (SCHS) junior read a poem dedicated to her friend Tyler Tenorio, a 16-year-old fellow student who was beaten and stabbed to death by gang members in October 2009.
It was Saturday, May 29 at the Louden Nelson Community Center, and the event was the first forum hosted by Peace on the Streets (POTS), a non-violence group created by 20 SCHS students. Burdick stood before an audience of about 150 fellow students, parents, teachers and community members and shared her memories of Tyler, concluding, “For now he is a star in the sky, and I know I will see him again someday.” She looked up from her paper and added, before taking her seat, “I just really want to see a difference in our town.”
Gangs and gang violence are weighing heavily on the minds of many Santa Cruz High students this year, especially following a devastating six-month period that saw both Tenorio’s stabbing and the April 24 death of another former SCHS student, 19-year-old Carl Reimer, who was shot by suspected gang members. One man, Daniel Onesto, 19, has been arrested in connection with Tenorio’s death and is awaiting a preliminary hearing; a second man, Paulo Luna, 23, is still being sought. No one has been arrested and no suspects have been publicly named in Reimer’s death.
“After Carl died, the kids were processing what had happened,” explains Stacey Falls, a SCHS teacher and faculty sponsor for POTS. “They were also really concerned about the community response. They felt there was a lot of negativity, and that their voices weren’t being heard.” An anguished discussion about the deaths during English teacher Catherine Franke’s class led to the idea of creating a student group dedicated specifically to finding peaceful, pro-active, inclusive, non-violent solutions to the local gang problems. “I brought the idea to the administration and they said, ‘Fantastic,’” says Falls. Less than three weeks later, POTS invited other community organizations, including the Brown Berets, the Resource Center for Non-Violence, Non-Violent Communication, CoAction and Barrios Unidos, to share in a day of discussion centered around both whole-group presentations and smaller 20-minute break-out sessions designed to explore gangs, racism, self-defense and non-violent alternatives to criminal activity.
“We wanted to have our voices heard, our emotions felt,” says Miguel Poblete, 17, a junior and one of the founding members of POTS. “We hope this will be a springboard for the actual development of programs for summer and fall. We wanted the forum to be relevant, but not hold it so early that it was just reactionary. The forum right after Tyler’s death kind of turned into a shouting match. We want to keep the peace, but at the same time have a place where you can say what you want and have your voice be heard.”
While many local community organizations have been doing gang-prevention work with young people for years, POTS is the first early intervention group founded by and for students. The program comes at a time of increased concern over gang involvement among young people, which appears to be happening at an ever-earlier age, according to Police Spokesman Zach Friend. “There appears to be a clear trend toward children, 10 to 13 years of age, joining gangs,” he tells Good Times via e-mail. ”And on the macro level it appears as though there has been a culture shift. We’ve heard repeatedly from long-time [Santa Cruz] residents that gangs themselves aren’t new but the acceptance, idolization and interest in them has spiked considerably in the past decade. With that, we’re finding multiple generations of gang members (parents, older siblings, etc.) are part of the same gang, indoctrinating our local children at a quite early age.”
While not specifically aware of POTS, Friend agrees that early intervention by community members, not just police, is the best way to prevent kids from joining gangs. “[Gang involvement] is an exceptionally difficult cycle to break and one that requires a community-wide effort,” he says, adding that the Police Department has partnered with Santa Cruz City Schools, the Santa Cruz Teen Center, Beach Flats Community Center and other organizations that focus on early intervention efforts. Their newest project is the Personally Responsible Individual Development in Ethics (PRIDE) program, created by Detective Joe Hernandez in partnership with the District Attorney’s Office and modeled off of a similar program in Los Angeles. PRIDE brings in local instructors, including police officers, community leaders, and sports figures, to educate troubled teens about good decision-making. “Our agency is proud to act as a partner in early intervention,” Friend says. “But we need to recognize that our primary function is in the enforcement side of crime. It is our hope that with greater community involvement at the parental, social and school level, we will be dealing with less children idolizing and joining the gang culture.”
Statistical evidence about the actual prevalence of gangs in Santa Cruz is sparse—Friend says police are currently working on a countywide effort to better track gang activity and crimes. But research does indicate that community-wide awareness and concern regarding gang violence is growing steadily. In the 2009 Community Assessment Project (CAP) Report, 11.3 percent of survey respondents said that gangs and crime were the main issue that impacted their quality of life in Santa Cruz County, up from 9.7 percent in 2007. This figure includes about 10 percent of Caucasian respondents and 17.7 percent of Latino respondents. Additionally, 12.8 percent of overall respondents said that gangs had a “big impact” in their neighborhoods—20.5 percent of people in South County, 10.2 percent in North County, and just 1.1 percent in the San Lorenzo Valley. (It is worth noting, however, that 26 percent of all respondents said gang violence only impacted them “somewhat,” and a full 43.5 percent said “not at all.”)
City Councilmember Don Lane, who attended the Peace on the Streets forum, says he’s heard the concerns of Santa Cruz youth loud and clear, and wants to make sure others do as well. “I’m thrilled that the youth said, ‘We want to do this,’” he says. “Other adult-led efforts, the youth were there, but they weren’t participating, they weren’t being engaged, and we weren’t getting the input we needed from them. I want to facilitate a report from Peace on the Streets to the City Council in order to hear what their concerns are.”
Following the forum, faculty supporter Falls posted a list online of students’ ideas to reduce violence and increase positive activities for themselves and their peers. Among the solutions they came up with were creating a mentoring program between high school and middle school students, instituting a mandatory volunteering/community service requirement to graduate, creating programs to allow students from different high schools to work together, asking locally-owned businesses to contribute more job training and hire more “at-risk” youths, and encouraging adults in their lives to educate each other about gangs, gang violence, and racism. A complete list is available at the POTS Facebook group or at peaceonthestreetssantacruz.blogspot.com.
As one of the group’s co-founders, Poblete feels that the forum is only the first step. “We want to create some kind of resource center, maybe start a Santa Cruz chapter of the Brown Berets,” he says. “I have two summers and a year left here before I finish high school. If I work hard and lead this movement, I believe I can truly help make a change in Santa Cruz.”