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Coalition Opens Drive to Reclaim Park, Neighborhood as Havens

March 28, 1991|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Beset by an Eastside gang with dozens of rivals, City Terrace Park and adjacent streets have been plagued for years by drive-by shootings and street gang recruitment.

In February, a coalition of community-based groups including the United Neighborhoods Organization and Community Youth Gang Services Project launched a campaign to reclaim the park and neighborhood as a safe haven for families and children.

The movement began Feb. 11 with a march of about 400 men, women and children who vowed to work with law enforcement authorities to bring an end to gang violence.

"We are going to organize sports teams and self-esteem activities to steer kids away from gangs, and put together a citizens group to keep an eye on gang activity and clean up graffiti," said Steve Valdivia, executive director of Community Youth Gang Services. "With the help of a group called Soledad Enrichment Action, we will also help parents learn to spot early signs of gang behavior in their own children."

"Gang hangouts are being bombarded by law enforcement surveillance and crackdowns," said Connie Armenta, a spokeswoman for United Neighborhoods Organization.

Gang-related violence has claimed at least a dozen lives in the area since 1989. Gang membership and deaths have risen significantly throughout Southern California in recent years.

In Los Angeles County, the final tally for 1990 shows that 690 men, women and children died as a result of gang violence. This compares to 554 in 1989 and 452 in 1988.

As gang violence spreads, a growing number of children are being psychologically traumatized by almost daily bloodshed in their midst.

The problem has spilled over into schools where educators say children raised among gangs often look and act much older than their years and have poor grades, high absentee rates, brief attention spans and low self-esteem.

Nine students in a class of 17 third-graders at Dolores Mission Elementary School said they had witnessed gun battles in their neighborhoods. One of them was an 8-year-old who recalled "running into my house when they started shooting."

"We turned off the lights and laid down on the floor," he said. "I didn't like it."

"We had a drive-by shooting near here. . . . One guy was shot in the neck, another in the groin--that was witnessed by 17 of our students," said Evelyn Y. Wilson, who counsels 104 troubled youngsters at City Terrace Elementary School. "They couldn't sleep and their parents had to walk them to school every day--but some stopped coming."

When that happens, Wilson said, "I give awards to kids for the most improved attendance--these are kids who are gone for weeks and then come back."

At Utah Street Elementary School on the Eastside, school coordinator Judy Charlton said, "When we see police helicopters hovering nearby, we bring the kids inside and lock the doors. We lock down about twice a year."

Psychiatrist William Arroyo, acting director of the Los Angeles County-USC Child-Adolescent Psychiatric Clinic, said children living in violent communities "develop a different sense of what life is all about."

"They see it as something that can be taken away suddenly, and they view this as a matter of fate, which helps them cope," he said. "By and large, many are going to be more guarded in their daily behavior than kids from communities that aren't rampant in violence."

In 1985, there were an estimated 400 gangs and 45,000 gang members countywide, said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department spokesman Wes McBride. Today, there are about 800 gangs and 90,000 gang members.

"It is tough for kids out there," McBride said.

"What's really bad is these children are at an impressionable age when personalities are still being formed," he said. "I'm afraid they may grow up to be apathetic toward violence, or learn to see it as a way of solving their problems."

In January, Los Angeles County sheriff's officials met with leaders from 35 communities to forge an alliance that will emphasize social programs as an alternative to gang violence that has claimed more than 3,500 lives in Los Angeles County over the last decade.

"Our expertise is ill-suited to preventing the emergence of new gangs or the increased membership of existing gangs," Los Angeles County Undersheriff Robert Edmonds told more than 200 civic leaders, educators, clergy and community activists at the two-day Community Gang Conference held in Carson.

The meeting signaled a significant departure from the Sheriff Department's strategies of the last decade, which relied heavily on street sweeps and crackdowns to arrest thousands of suspected gang members.

"Obviously, we miscalculated the solution," Edmonds acknowledged. "What is needed are partnerships involving all segments of our society."

THE TOLL

Homicides by gang members in Los Angeles County.

'85: 271

'86: 328

'87: 387

'88: 452

'89: 554

'90: 690

Source: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, from its figures and those obtained fron city police departments.

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