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Peer Intervention Urged to Fight Youth Gangs, Drugs

June 07, 1987|ROXANA KOPETMAN | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — If the city wants to get rid of gangs, it must start in the schools, enlist the business community and target minority students.

To stop drug and alcohol abuse among children, the formula also begins in the schools--with an emphasis on peer intervention.

Those are the major themes in preliminary recommendations released last week by a city task force on substance abuse and gangs.

"The business community must devote resources to the minority community. That's the bottom line, because the gang problem is a minority problem," said Jerome Torres, head of the task force'ssubcommittee on gangs.

So the city must target "at risk" minority youth, especially those already identified as gang members, in expanding tutorial, recreational, remedial and anti-graffiti programs, the task force recommends.

And better communications between the private and public sectors can help deliver a wide array of services, including youth employment programs the task force would like to see implemented.

To battle drug and alcohol abuse, the key is "students helping students," said Andy Andrews, head of the task force subcommittee on substance abuse.

"It took peer groups to get them into trouble. It'll take peer groups to get them out of trouble," Andrews said.

Teachers need to be trained to detect problem students and learn how best to help them, task force members said. The best way to help in many cases is not through official channels, such as counselors and police, but by creating peer-intervention support programs in junior high schools and expanding existing programs in senior high schools, Andrews said.

Until recently, such recommendations were not taken seriously by city and school officials, according to Torres and others involved in battling gang activities. But those who once criticized the city for not doing enough to fight gangs now say there is a change in attitude.

Efforts Being Expanded

The school district is working to implement an anti-gang program, long sought by community activists. The Police Department is about to expand its two-officer, one-sergeant gang unit. And on Tuesday, the City Council said it would support the task force's request for $22,000 to gather statistics and evaluate the extent of education and intervention programs, among other things.

"Prior to this, I don't think the intensity was there and I don't think there were people who wanted to help. Now, we're opening up a lot of doors," Andrews said.

E. Tom Giugni, superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District, acknowledged: "From the school district level, it is a considerable expansion from that which we already are doing. It's a major jump in increased effort."

Giugni, who heads the substance abuse and gangs task force, concedes that there is greater awareness now that Long Beach has 22 active gangs.

Issues Intertwined

There also is a growing awareness of an increase in drug and alcohol abuse, and the two issues--gangs and substance abuse--are intertwined, officials say.

But task force members say they can't pinpoint just "how bad" substance abuse and gang problems are and how many programs and grants are available to battle it--which is why they want to contract with a researcher.

With local statistics in hand, the task force hopes to send a message to the community: "One of the major problems in Long Beach is awareness," Andrews said. "People who don't have kids or whose kids are grown, say, 'Hey, I don't have kids, so why should I be concerned? It doesn't concern me.' That's one of the reasons we need this study. To show them it is affecting their pocketbook. It is costing taxpayers an astronomical amount of money because 80% of the arrests in Long Beach are substance and gang related."

Task force members expect to have a final report in August. Between now and then, some of their recommendations may be altered, they said.

Not all of the suggestions in the interim report are being embraced by all the members. For example, the task force recommends that police discontinue their "saturation" practice of continuously targeting areas known for gang-related criminal activities. Such methods create bad feeling in the community and are not effective, Torres said.

Deputy Police Chief Bill Ellis, who is represented on the task force, said he would not recommend doing away with the saturation approach, which he said gives police high visibility and allows residents to "feel free to move in that area."

Overall, however, Ellis said the Police Department is "supportive of all the recommendations."

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