Forum on gangs packs Lincoln High theater

By: Cheri March The News Messenger
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Residents concerned about a recent surge in youth-led violence packed the Lincoln High School Theater April 30 for the police department’s forum on local gang activity. The session centered on something Lincoln Police Chief Brian Vizzusi said law enforcement has not traditionally done well – prevention. But tradition is changing, he added. “We have realized we can’t arrest our way out of gangs and drugs,” Vizzusi said. “(The solution) starts with educating people about the problem.” Stopping gangs is a community – not just law enforcement – dilemma, he said. Police recently formed a collaborative group that discusses the issue weekly. And shortly before the forum, law enforcement and community members conducted a four-hour workshop with members of the San Jose Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force, a program Lincoln officials hope to emulate. San Jose developed the comprehensive task force to tackle gang violence and drug use in the city from all angles – combining prevention, suppression and intervention – rather than just through responses to individual incidents. Similarly, Lincoln’s program will be composed of community stakeholders – including city officials, council members and local organizations. Since most local gang members are 15 to 18 years old, the department relocated its youth services officer from the high school to the city’s two middle schools, Glen Edwards and Twelve Bridges, Vizzusi said. Officers have begun educating teachers and administrators about signs of gang involvement. Gang members have typically fallen behind in school and lack involvement in after-school activities, said Lincoln Police Lt. David Ibarra. “All kids want to believe in something,” Ibarra said. “If there is no parental guidance or opportunities for positive involvement, they often turn to gangs to meet those needs.” Ibarra, who grew up in Lincoln, credited supportive parents and mentors – including his soccer coach, First Street Elementary School principal Ruben Ayala – for keeping him on the path to success. “I had several people who were positive influences in my life and I think each one of us can do the same thing – parents, teachers and neighbors,” he said. Though he didn’t speak English until elementary school, Ibarra said a positive educational environment helped him overcome the language barrier. “My teachers treated me like the rest of the kids,” Ibarra said. “I still remember that. I think if kids are treated the same way, they’re going to feel like they belong and they’ll turn out normal.” Despite an uptick in gang crimes, the most prevalent gang offense in Lincoln is still graffiti, which, in a sense, is a good sign, said Lincoln Police Det. Jeromy Henson. “That’s exciting because it makes me think these kids can be taken out of gangs,” Henson said. “They’re just looking for a relationship.” As he riffled through slides of graffiti and young adults dressed in characteristic attire, Henson offered tips for parents who suspect their child is affiliated with a gang. Lincoln, like many regions in California, is dealing with the two gangs – the Norteños and Sureños, he said. Sureños typically hail from Southern California, always wear blue and associate with the number 13, which is often scrawled in Roman numerals as graffiti. Norteños, the northerners, don red and claim No. 14. Gang members usually wear jerseys, T-shirts or bandanas bearing their gang’s color or number, though a sign is sometimes as subtle as a pair of red laces. Drawings on binders and backpacks often incorporate the telltale signs, Henson said. “It’s not hard to tell,” he said. “These kids are proud of this – it’s their life.” Ibarra cautioned all parents to be aware of the colors in their child’s wardrobe. “I get on my daughter about wearing all red or all blue,” Ibarra said. “She might give me a hard time over it, but I try to protect my kid because of the way things are now. We’ve had incidents in the past with innocent kids walking down the street, being seen by a gang member and assaulted.” Leonard Brown, a Lincoln resident and Lighthouse Resource Center counselor, said he attended the forum on behalf of his grandchildren. “I’ve got grandkids that go to school here,” he said. “Isn’t it sad I have to worry about the colors my grandkids wear in school?” Brown, who blamed part of the problem on a perceived dearth of youth activities in town, agreed the city must unite to see a difference. “I’d like to see the community get more involved,” he said. “It’s not just police or parents, it’s about the community.”