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Conference Examines Drugs and Gangs, but Solutions Prove Elusive

May 03, 1990|JEORDAN LEGON

As nearly 300 people discussed problems that jeopardize the future of a generation of teen-agers--from graffiti to drug abuse, gang violence and murder--the question kept coming up: "What can be done?"

Among the most common solutions proposed at the recent National Conference on Substance Abuse and Gang Violence were more police, more research, more community involvement, more parent involvement, more education, more action and more money.

During the two days of presentations, 27 speakers offered new insights into the world of gangs, a better understanding of the realities of drug abuse and a glimpse at the reasons for violence--troubles that plague many Latino youths and other inner-city minorities. The conference was sponsored by the California School of Professional Psychology and the Office for Substance Abuse Prevention, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, one of the speakers, said that education and prevention are vital to reducing the gang problem. "There need to (be) meaningful programs that notice and motivate these youngsters," Block said. "We need to reach these kids now before I have to deal with them later in much more difficult situations."

Fern Stamps, a Carson resident whose son was killed by a gang member two years ago, said politicians many times are unwilling to offer help to gang members.

"No politician gives a damn about these gang members because they're poor and they're young and they've got no political clout," said Stamps, a 49-year-old housewife. "All people care about is getting them in jail. Let's give them an education, a job. Let's not leave them to rot. . . . doing that will only hurt us all."

Paul Juarez, a professor at Cal State Long Beach, said the Los Angeles police and sheriff's departments, in a constant battle for increased funding, have blown gang membership and the numbers of gang-related murders out of proportion.

"The numbers being reported out there severely misrepresent the truth," Juarez said. "The police would like you to believe that all black and Latino teen-agers are gang members and that all gang members are drug peddlers and violence fanatics. But that is simply not true."

Another speaker, Armando Morales, said the ambiguity in the police definition of "gang member" leaves the term open to many interpretations. "If you have a tattoo or your friends think you're a gang member or the policeman writing the report simply thinks so, then you are labeled a gang member," said Morales, a UCLA School of Medicine professor.

Block disagreed and said the statistics reported by his department are not inflated.

"We have to face the fact we have a huge gang problem," he said. "We only label them gang members if that's what they are."

Ana Luisa Bustamante, a professor at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, said what's more important than getting a count of gang members is helping them succeed in life.

Bustamante and a colleague conducted a pilot study of 20 gang members and found that, although most of them were of average intelligence, they lacked motivation. "These kids aren't dumb. They're just lazy," she said. "All they need really is a good education and genuine encouragement."

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