By Helen Afrasiabi, California Health Report
The Santa Ana Unified School District is launching a school safety measure with a grant of nearly $500,000, awarded by the Department of Justice.
A major part of the effort targets children at risk for gang involvement. The key is reaching kids far earlier than before, said school police chief David Valentin.
“Gang activity starts unfortunately very early in some instances,” Valentin said. “Really if you’re talking about true gang prevention, not intervention, you’re looking at elementary school aged kids.”
This could even mean kids as young as fourth graders, he said.
“They have a sibling who is incarcerated, or other family members already in gangs and these kids are on the track of following suit, for any number of reasons,” Valentin said.
The grant from the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Service office is awarded based on strong community policing plans and multi-agency partnerships, said DOJ spokesman Corey Ray.
Santa Ana has a tradition of community policing that dates back to 1973. The school district police officers commit themselves to a particular geographic location and getting to know the community.
Establishing strong relationships with stakeholders including kids on campus, staff and residents is key to prevention. Knowing who to speak to can make all the difference in prevention, Valentin says.
“The idea is get out in the police car, walk around and see who makes up community. If they hear rumblings, officers with that good rapport who are respected can get information and prevent a fight or assault,” Valentin said.
Valentin cites property crimes, theft of personal items, assault and vandalism to schools among the biggest problems at schools.
The grant money will go towards increased lighting at school campuses, closed-circuit televisions, gang prevention program literature and videos, student security pamphlets, protocol brochures and video cameras.
While some measures focus on protection, others are preventive, such as the literature and videos.
Increasing safety at school means reaching out to parents so they are able to recognize signs of trouble, too.
“Education enhances awareness and exposure to the issue,” Valentin said of their planned prevention efforts. Many parents, he said, aren’t familiar with warning signs that their kids may be involved with gangs.
Valentin also want to curb the absentee rates that occur as a result of students feeling threatened.
“When you talk about bullying, for example, it impacts students’ willingness and ability to come to class and do what they’re supposed to do,” Valentin said.
Bullying is sometimes gang-related and is not at other times, and it is important for police to be aware of the difference. The district police have to be vigilant of signs associated with gang-related bullying, such as graffiti nearby or the nature of any injury.
Whatever the cause of the bullying, Valentin said, it interferes with school attendance.
“That’s also going to be a priority…to do whatever we can to ensure our student population feels secure in just making it there,” Valentin said.
Efforts will be district-wide, with the money allocated across all schools. There isn’t one school or another that is more at risk, Valentin said, so much as different areas are being impacted for different reasons. Concerns like traffic safety are big at some schools, while vandalism is important at others.
Such concerns are important to safety, Valentin said, citing the broken windows theory. “If graffiti goes up and you just let it be, or someone throws trash there and you just let that be, it creates acceptance,” Valentin said.
Valentin brings years of experience with the city police department and expects to work closely with the School District and Board.
“The district has demonstrated that school safety is at the top of their priorities,” Valentin said.
Helen Afrasiabi is a correspondent for the California Health Report at www.healthycal.org.