Thursday, May 15, 2008

Gang issues in Tahoe

april tahoe unedited

Editor’s note: On the following pages and in the coming months, we will be looking at a variety of social issues affecting youth on the South Shore – from gangs to the judicial system to social agencies and more.

By Kathryn Reed

Disconnects between parents and kids, between the community and schools, between law enforcement and parents of troubled youth are being bridged through a task force that was formed more than a year ago.
Issues of unrest at South Tahoe High School are repeatedly said to be a reflection of what is going on the community at-large. Fights at the school can be the result of an event or an exchange of words that occurred elsewhere over the weekend. Tagging is a form of communication for gangs as well as a symptom of boredom for kids who have nothing better to do and no place to hang.
Language barriers are just that – an obstacle that must be acknowledged and dealt with. Cultural differences are real. It is impossible to merely tell someone to figure out the American way and become assimilated.
South Lake Tahoe’s population is one-quarter Latino.

Help for parents

About 80 people – mostly parents -- showed up at South Tahoe Middle School on March 25 to listen to a panel of ten talk about what Latino parents can do to better communicate with their children and the schools they attend. More than 200 people showed up at a similar meeting last fall.
This second Youth Task Force meeting for parents conducted in Spanish with translators for English-only speakers had representatives from South Tahoe High and South Tahoe Middles schools, Tahoe Youth & Family Services, mental health, probation, SLT Police Department, county health department and the women’s center.
Arturo Rangel, who facilitated the meeting and works at the college and Family Resource Center, said afterward, “We are dealing with a deeply rooted cultural thing.”
He, like many in the room, came to Tahoe from Mexico; from small towns where gangs don’t exist. Rangel said parents don’t communicate with people in the education system unless a problem exists. This is counter to the U.S. system where parents are encouraged to attend open houses, back to school nights, sign off on homework, volunteer in classrooms and chat with their child’s teacher at the grocery store.
Delicia Spees came to the United States from Bolivia. She grew-up in Illinois, but has lived in South Lake for 33 years. She is the director of the Family Resource Center. She knows what it is like to speak only Spanish in a country that speaks English.
“Kids assimilate and parents are in isolation. The language acquisition is hard. Most are parents who work two jobs. It’s a cultural shock. Most have very little education,” Spees said.
She believes the lack of a bilingual officer in the South Lake Tahoe Police Department is part of the problem because kids don’t translate the full story between officers and parents. Spees related a story of when she was in elementary school and didn’t tell her mom everything the teacher was saying. Her mom called her on it after the meeting. Spees was shocked her mom knew something was amiss. Her mom set out to learn English so she was never at a disadvantage.
Police officials admit they have youths translate for them. They contend this is not a problem.
But, Spees, who says she was a good kid, says if she didn’t translate an entire conversation, then what are older kids who might be questioned about a fight or tagging going to do? How can parents help if they don’t know the full story?
Parents seem to be scared and uncertain about their rights as evidenced by questions they asked last month. Immigration issues trouble them. Will INS be called? Will Child Protective Services be called? Will their child be removed from the house?
Police officer Shannon Laney told the group the department isn’t concerned with the immigration issue. They want to resolve local problems, and ideally prevent them.
“We aren’t so much to be feared, we’re there to help,” Laney said. He encouraged parents to call the department. He said officers can talk to the children to find out what is going on. “Go through their binders. Look at drawing. If you think they are involved win a gang or associated with people who are, call the school.”
No one from CPS was at the meeting, but it was noted to parents that the agency is not called anymore for Latino families than Anglo – it’s all about a child’s safety.
Spees said parents are afraid to punish kids – that their children have threatened to call police or CPS on them.
“Parents have the right to spank kids,” Spees said.
Repeatedly parents were told that schools welcome calls. Resources are available from each of the agencies in attendance.
Most important, they were told to know their kids, to talk to them, to meet their friends, peruse what sites they are visiting on the Internet, to tell them they are loved.

The task force

The Youth Task Force is comprised of about 20 individuals from a variety of agencies, law enforcement, area schools and parents who are trying to make a difference. They often meet monthly.
“A lot of parents said we need communication, don’t tell me what is going on in the schools, tell me what I can do, what are my rights, the rights of my kids and what resources are out there,” Spees said before the meeting. She is on the task force.
Brooke Laine became involved in the task force when a son’s friend got into a fight at South Tahoe High. The parents of the child who was involved in the fight didn’t want to be quoted because they’ve filed charges against the youngster who allegedly started the fight by cold-cocking their child.
“You have to teach kids there is a difference between right and wrong,” said Laine, a South Lake Tahoe native with two boys at STHS.
She is encouraged by the task force – saying it is one of the few groups she has been involved with that is mostly task driven.
With the school resource officer from SLTPD on medical leave, it has been months since STHS has had a regular law enforcement presence. The task force helped get the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol to agree to stop by when they can – not just when a crisis occurs.
A safety issue at the school involves how some of the doors lock at the school. Principal Ivone Larson said new ones are on order.
A goal of the task force is to get the community involved, to not tolerate graffiti by removing it quickly. But this isn’t happening. The only location quickly covered up was in early spring when Tahoe Valley Elementary was splattered with gang markings.
“They use tagging as a method of communicating. We can’t be complacent about that. We can’t be OK with that. We can’t allow our community to accept that that’s OK,” Laine said.
Tahoe isn’t alone with its graffiti problem. The San Francisco Chronicle has had several articles this year about troubles in Bay Area cities.
In Redding, law enforcement officials and the city manager came together to have a no-tolerance stance on graffiti. Kids in juvi hall paint over gang symbols. The North State city has a trailer full of paint just for this purpose.
At one Tahoe task force meeting store managers came to talk about thefts, alcohol and other issues pertaining to youths.
Larson is also a big proponent of getting the community involved and not letting the unrest be deemed solely a school issue.
“Working with things like putting in the track (at South Tahoe Middle School) unites a community,” Larson said. “When facilities look good, students take pride and interact with those facilities in a whole different light. Creating programs that engage kids with our new facilities will do that.”

South Tahoe High

Larson says the violence at the school has picked up since the campus has been without a school resource officer. She believes the officer’s presence is a preventative measure to fights.
She added that since the series of 11 arrests earlier this year things have calmed down on Gardner Mountain.
The district is in the process of hiring a third full-time security guard for the school. This will be the first female hire. The STHS grad is expected to be onboard this month if all the background checks pan out.
Staff, counselors and administrators patrol the campus before and after school and during breaks.
“The cameras have been fabulous for both being proactive and clarifying what happened,” Larson said of the devices installed last year.
She hopes if the June facilities bond passes that the high school will be reconfigured to make it more of a closed-in campus where oversight will be easier. Plus, it will provide for a student union-cafeteria that doesn’t currently exist.
When it comes to discipline, administrators can dole out a five-day suspension. Beyond that it goes to the school board. In-house, after school and Saturday suspensions are types of punishment. The state Education Code dictates a lot of what can be done. Peer mediation is something Larson says has been well received.
“It’s been very effective for students to learn this process. They learn they can resolve issues without violence,” Larson said.
Police are called when it is serious, she said.
Several people have pointed to the A Team as being a huge positive force for STHS and Mount Tallac students. Its name is derived from the three primary forces’ first names starting with A. They are Amy Jackson, counselor at Tallac; Aaron Barnett, counselor at STHS; and Adrian Escobedo, community liaison for the schools.
“The A Team came together this year after the gang stuff in September. We were concerned about retaliation and what the next step would be,” Jackson said. “We thought we might have some impact on some of the kids who may be involved.”
Many kids they are dealing with don’t know their options. They don’t know about education opportunities beyond Tahoe or jobs beyond what their parents do. Many haven’t experienced Tahoe’s natural resources.
“We have a million water holes around and most Latino kids don’t swim. How do you think a family is going to afford a ski pass let alone the equipment that goes with that? It’s a wonderful town, but (Latino parents) don’t understand the resources,” Spees, with the Family Resource Center, said.
She doesn’t believe the community should entirely pick up the pieces, but that it needs to understand the problems and what is going on.
Communication – that appears to be key to resolving many problems in town.
Escobedo started his job in March 2007. He’s a resource for all kids and parents. He connects with parents and helps students connect with the community via jobs and getting them to know Tahoe more.
The A Team has received support from the town. Heavenly allowed a group to go up on the Gondola – a first for these kids. Sierra-at-Tahoe let them ski and board for a day – another first. The city Parks and Rec Department let them play broom ball – yes, a first.
“We are providing them opportunities that perhaps they haven’t received because of their culture or economics,” Escobedo said.

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