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Major Role Urged for L.A. Schools in Stopping Gangs

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Improving public education is "by far the most significant'' long-term strategy Los Angeles County, Calif., can employ to fight gangs, a study by the county district attorney's office concludes.

The report's authors said local governments can blunt gang activity significantly by cracking down on truancy, beefing up school security, and providing more recreation opportunities.

They also said schools should do more to meet the needs of low-income minority children, who are most likely to join gangs.

The authors, however, declined to list any systemic changes that they feel are needed in education, saying that it would be "inappropriate'' to do so.

"If Los Angeles could trade every gang-prevention program in existence for schools that kept kids in school and provided them with solid foundations for success, we would be well-advised to make the deal,'' said the report, which was released late last month.

The 236-page report, "Gangs, Crime, and Violence in Los Angeles,'' began as an internal review of gang policy ordered by District Attorney Ira Reiner. It was later expanded into a broader examination of the gang phenomenon and public responses to it, both current and historical, Mr. Reiner wrote in his foreword to the report.

The study comes in the wake of the riot that followed the virtual acquittal of four white police officers who were videotaped as they beat Rodney King, a black man arrested for a traffic violation. Some gang members have been arrested in connection with violence committed during the civil disturbance.

Los Angeles County, which is described in the report as having the worst gang problem in the country, has about 1,000 gangs and roughly 150,000 gang members.

Gang homicides in the county reached a record high of 771 in 1991, the report said. Gangs were responsible for virtually all growth in homicides in the county since 1984; non-gang murders actually decreased during the past six years.

The study's authors said one of their "most troubling'' findings was that, according to police data, nearly half of all African-American men in the county between the ages of 21 and 24 are gang members. That figure compares with less than 10 percent of similarly aged Latino men, less than 7 percent of Asian men, and less than 1 percent of Caucasian men.

The report's authors cautioned that the figure for young blacks is "so far out of line'' compared with the other ethnic groups that more analysis is needed to determine whether police procedures systematically over-identify them as gang members.

The report said it "is a good bet'' that a plan by Gov. Pete Wilson to use schools to deliver a variety of community and social services will keep children in school, improve their health, help educators spot such problems as learning disabilities earlier, and boost parental involvement with the school community. The plan has yet to be funded.

Other Findings

The report also included the following findings and recommendations:

  • While Los Angeles leads the nation in school-based gang-prevention programs, it is hard to document whether such programs put a dent in gang recruitment.
  • Parent involvement is a crucial element in strategies to crush gangs. Local officials should consider steps such as citing parents for their children's truancy, referring parents to parenting programs, boosting parent involvement in the juvenile-justice system, and returning juvenile-delinquency cases to the court nearest the child's home.
  • The juvenile-justice system should be reformed to ensure that young people receive meaningful punishment for even minor crimes.
  • The Los Angeles county and city governments should petition the state legislature to rewrite truancy and curfew laws to permit juvenile status offenders to be locked up with adults.
  • The Los Angeles region should develop a master plan for youth services focused on at-risk youths similar to one adopted in Denver.
  • Employment programs are needed to encourage gang members to turn away from the drug trade.

Gang Truce

In a related development, two of Los Angeles's most notorious gangs, the Bloods and the Crips, have declared a "truce,'' pledging to refrain from the violence that has raged between them for decades, officials said.

At least one law-enforcement official interviewed last week said the effort, while achieving mixed results, seems to be valid.

"It does seem to be a legitimate effort on the part of some of our gangs,'' said Burt Davila, the director of the county probation department's specialized gang-supervision programs.

The peacemaking, he said, seems to be taking stronger hold in areas where the branches of the Crips and Bloods are predominantly black than it does in locations such as Long Beach, where branches have more Hispanic and Asian members.

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