Today's parents need to learn how to properly raise their children, several speakers told members of a community violence prevention task force Thursday night. Unless this happens, the quest to eradicate criminal street gangs will be even more difficult.
Nearly 100 people attended a two-hour forum of the Merced Community Violence Intervention & Prevention Task Force at Golden Valley High School. The 15-member panel of community and government leaders was formed nearly two years ago to reduce violence among local youth.
Spanish-speaker Maria Covarrubias, speaking through an interpreter, agreed gang violence problems start at home. Sometimes there is no father at home, there are financial problems and the mother has to work. Parents say they have no time to talk with their children and they get in gangs.
"Our children need attention," Covarrubias said. "Parents need to spend more time with their kids; we need workshops on how to parent."
Retired Tenaya Middle School vice principal Pete Delacruz said problems will continue as long as parenting skills aren't taught. He commended the task force, dubbed Merced ComVIP until a new, less-formal, name is chosen, for sticking with it in addressing youth violence issues.
"Somewhere along the line we lost it," Delacruz said. "Kids join gangs because it's the only security they've got. We need to start changing the attitude of youth."
New Hope Merced executive director Samuel Rangel said there is a big generation gap between parents and children and parents need to learn about text-messaging and MySpace pages. He also believes that in some cases both parents and their children need anger management classes.
Pastor Al Schaap of Gateway Community Church applauded the city's leadership for the collaborative nature of the violence prevention program. He said he is trying to get more coordinated efforts to address youth problems among the faith-based community.
"When you live without values, you live without valuing life," Schaap said. "It's a systemic issue of domestic and community violence and it starts in our homes."
Retired science teacher Max Muralt said Merced is a fantastic community and he loves it. He said kids are having babies and don't know anything about parenting. He advocated student members be included on the Merced ComVIP panel.
Flip Hassett, United Way of Merced County executive director, called for a broad-based volunteer effort to work with youth programs.
"I love this community and the people in it," Hassett said. "We're losing it and I'm angry about it." Donations to youth programs including heightened summer camps can be channeled through United Way, he added.
Terry Brace, Merced City School District superintendent and task force member, said he gets asked if the group is making a difference and said it has. All 17 of the district's schools have adopted the "Character Counts" program to encourage positive behavior in today's students.
"I think we are making a difference," Brace said. "If people collaborate for the good of the community and if we get enough people who really care we can make it happen."
Deputy District Attorney Dave Elgin, who prosecutes many gang cases, said for every gang member sent to prison, hundreds are waiting to take their place. The District Attorney's Office is an enthusiastic supporter of Merced ComVIP's efforts to address youth violence issues.
Robert Fore, Merced Union High School District superintendent, said education is one of the most important keys to life success and erasing poverty. He said there's a good school system here and parents need to keep their kids busy.
If youths start associating with gangs, parents are usually the last to know. Learning the signs when a child is leaning toward joining a gang literally can save a child's life, Fore said.
Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin offered what he called a "little dose of reality." He said he knows families with a wonderful home life and youths still fall into the gang abyss.
"It's an oxymoron. There is no lifestyle when it comes to gangs," Pazin said. "Two words keep bubbling to the surface: education or incarceration. Part of the educational process has to start at home, that's all I'm asking."
Alexander Hall, the city of Merced's director of parks and community services, said the city is expanding its summer program from 40 to 240 students this year to provide a positive, safe and structured environment with qualified and trained staff.
Sponsorships are needed for some of these participating youths, he added.
"We need to engage young people," Hall said, "with activities to keep kids busy, and give kids choices."
Cmdr. Mike Parish of the UC Merced Police Department said university students have become mentors of fourth-graders at Alicia Reyes Elementary School. "Junior Bobcats" take part in half-day tours of the university campus and he hopes many young participants ultimately will seek a higher education.
The difference with Merced ComVIP, Cmdr. Norm Andrade of the Merced Police Department said, is that this group is composed of government officials who have the authority to make decisions and implement needed programs.
It's almost unheard of, Andrade said, for a group like this to stay together for 18 months. Law enforcement by itself can't get it done and erasing gangs and youthful violence won't happen overnight.
City of Merced spokesman Mike Conway, event moderator, said the city is putting together a summer activity guide for youth. There are three components to eliminating gang activities: prevention, intervention and enforcement.
Presiding Superior Court Judge John Kirihara said all those in the criminal justice system realize their efforts only go so far. He said one of the saddest things he encounters is to see the family of a slain 14-year-old on one side of the courtroom and the family of a murder suspect about to be sentenced to life in prison on the other side.
"If we can prevent just a few people from getting involved in negative activity, for every child who doesn't cycle through the system, we will all be better," Kirihara said.
City-sponsored gang education awareness workshops started in November and will continue through May and possibly longer, Conway said.
Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.