Researchers from the Gevirtz School of Education recently helped evaluate a $1.5 million grant of state funds awarded to three cities in Santa Barbara County, with these funds intended to reduce youth gang activity.

Through the statewide Gang Reduction, Intervention and Prevention (CalGRIP) program, the California Board of Corrections and Rehabilitation granted Lompoc, Santa Barbara, and Carpinteria $500,000 each for gang prevention and intervention activities, facilitated by the South Coast Task Force on Youth Gangs.  The $500,000 each city received will be used over a two-year period and will focus on addressing youth gang violence through different programs and city-wide strategies. Carpinteria will focus on a prevention model while the City of Santa Barbara will use an intervention model and Lompoc will focus on an employment, prevention and intervention model.

UCSB alum Saul Serrano, coordinator of the South Coast Task Force on Youth Gangs, said his organization came into existence following the tragic death of fifteen-year old Luis Angel Linares on March 14, 2007. Linares was a victim of a gang stabbing homicide that occurred on State Street in downtown Santa Barbara. After his brutal murder, the Strategy Planning Committee on Youth Violence was created in January 2008, and its creation prompted the later establishment of the South Coast Task Force, which now provides services and programs to local at-risk youth.

Serrano explained that although great efforts have been made to curb youth gang violence in the past, the new influx of funds will help facilitate further success of programs like the one he coordinates.

“There has been work that has been done to not only help the youth make better choices, but also to have access to better education and opportunity in the community,” Serrano said.

Dr. Jill Sharkey, school psychology coordinator in the department of counseling, clinical and school psychology in the Gervitz School of Education at UCSB, helped create an evaluation component that was used to help clarify how effective programs like Serrano’s are. Sharkey said UCSB’s role in providing evaluative data helped organizations in Santa Barbara County attain the funding, which will be used for much-needed community efforts.

“We ended up getting grants for all three cities, which was a big proportion of the overall funds given out by the state,” Sharkey said.

At-risk youths are the most sought after by the South Coast Task Force, Sharkey said, and the living conditions of many children in Isla Vista put them at risk of becoming involved in gang violence.

“When parents have to work so much to pay the rent, they have less of a presence at home and children are left unsupervised,” Sharkey said. “If children are not doing well academically, and they don’t have support at home, they may be struggling to find a place where they feel successful and valued.”

Since state funding began in 2008, youth gang violence has been decreasing in the state and the larger region, according to Serrano. However, he said efforts to decrease gang activity have not resulted in equal success with male and female youth.

“Although there has been a decrease among the male population, there hasn’t been a decrease in the female population — it’s flatlining,” Serrano said. “Traditionally, we have always focused on young men and women. In the past, young men have been a greater focus, but this year we are hoping not to neglect the young women involved.”

Both Serrano and Sharkey said the UCSB community, especially Isla Vista, need to facilitate positive interactions between students and families. According to Sharkey, young children living in Isla Vista see the sometimes reckless lifestyle of a college-aged community everyday, which may negatively impact their growing conceptions of personal and social responsibility.

“UCSB students need to make sure they understand the impact on the community,” Sharkey said. “When there’s a lot of partying, trash, empty bottles, that’s what the kids see,” Sharkey said.

Serrano emphasized the importance of UCSB students interacting with other people who live in the Isla Vista community, including families. Programs such as the Isla Vista Teen Center provide opportunities for students to spend time with the youth of Isla Vista, and Serrano said taking part in activities like these can positively impact the lives of many young people.

“This is about youth growing up in a community. They are neighbors and people’s children. There is always a community that will benefit from students reaching out and becoming involved,” Serrano said.