LENNOX — In this impoverished and ethnically mixed community, the pressure for children to join gangs is great--so great that officials estimate that almost half of all elementary school-age children will become involved with gangs when they reach junior or senior high.
At Larch Avenue Elementary, the war on gangs begins as early as the fourth grade, where counselors and teachers work to give students the confidence to say no to gangs before they get to junior high school and the intense peer pressure to join gangs.
The gang prevention classes, based on a highly successful program in Paramount, are taught to fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students over an eight-week period. The students learn about the dangers of gang membership and study alternatives to joining street gangs.
"Once you're in a gang it is almost impossible to get out, yet most programs focus on dealing with gang members after the fact. If we can discourage young children from joining gangs when they get older we can wipe out the base for gangs to recruit from," said Francisco Gomez, who runs Larch Avenue's gang diversion program.
The program, sponsored by the Project Heavy youth services organization, also includes monthly meetings for parents. Counselors and former gang members tell parents about gang-related clothing, behavior and other tell-tale signs that signal their children may be involved with street gangs.
Larch Avenue School is holding a gang prevention meeting for parents today at 6:30 p.m. in the school cafeteria.
Project Heavy, a clearing house that matches government funding with youth service agencies throughout Los Angeles county, started offering the gang prevention classes in Paramount four years ago. Follow-up studies there showed that more than 90% of the students who participated in the program did not join gangs when they entered junior high.
Larch Avenue school's program is the first gang-prevention program targeted at elementary school students in the South Bay, said Project Heavy director Maria Elena Aguiliar, though Project Heavy officials hope to expand the program to more schools in Lennox and other districts. Project Heavy targeted Lennox because the 1 1/2-square-mile community has one of the largest concentrations of gangs in the county.
"A lot of kids here think they have to join gangs to survive," said Gomez, who himself resisted intense pressure to join street gangs when he was growing up in Lynwood. "I try to tell them that there are alternatives."
But saying no isn't easy.
"What happens if they want to beat you up because you don't want to be part of their gang?," asked one student in a recent class. She said she had been attacked by a group of older girls who pressured her to join their gang. "I know they are supposed to be bad, but there are a whole bunch of them and there is only one of me. It's hard," the young girl said.
Gomez advises the students to find strength in each other. "If they stick together they can reverse the peer pressure from being bad to staying out of trouble," Gomez said.
"The gangs are very influential. They are role models for a lot of the students. At the beginning of the program many of my students think gangs are heroes," Gomez said. "They really don't understand the dangers involved."
The program paints an unattractive, and sometimes horrifying, picture of gangs. Students see that gang members often wind up on drugs, in jail, or dead. Halfway through the program, students--some siblings of gang members themselves--realize that gangs endanger their families' lives by discussing a scenario in which a gang member's younger sister is shot in a drive-by shooting while jumping rope in her front yard.
Not New to Students
The subjects can be emotionally wrenching, but they are not completely unfamiliar to Larch Avenue students--some of whom have lost older brothers or sisters to gang violence.
"I thought I might scare the students when I first started talking about death and violence," Gomez said. "But I quickly realized that most of these children already know about this stuff. They have either seen it or heard it somewhere and usually haven't had a chance to talk about it before now."
Lennox, a unincorporated island bounded by Hawthorne, Inglewood and Los Angeles International Airport, has some of the toughest gangs in the county, said Joe Alarcon, a 21-year-old former Lennox gang member who now works as a counselor for the county's Youth Gang Services program.
Seven different gangs have carved out their turf in Lennox--almost twice the number of gangs two years ago.