L.A. Mission College gets at-risk youth back on track
by Dana Bartholomew
For Javier Franco, it's a long way from Columbus Street to precalculus at L.A. Mission College.
A member of the notorious Columbus Street Gang, which just received an injunction because of street crimes including drug dealing and murder, the 27-year-old Panorama City student had served long stints in Folsom State Prison.
Then he found moral guidance from a former prizefighter at Communities in Schools in North Hills, a welding job through an apprenticeship at Laborers' Local 300 — and hope at the Sylmar community college that he could someday succeed.
“Deep inside, the gang life, the prison life, wasn't for me,” declared Franco, gazing out over the school that sent its soccer forward over many remedial math hurdles. “I always wanted much more. I wanted to be somebody.”
The northeast San Fernando Valley community college has long been a leader in reaching out to so-called at-risk youth by offering college-level courses to kids at local juvenile halls.
But now the growing campus, tucked up against the San Gabriel Mountains, is ramping up its community outreach, from a new effort to coax gang members such as Franco into the ivory tower to a new campaign beckoning adults locked up in county jails to take courses in the likes of social ethics and media arts.
And at the center of it all is a college president with a special affection for screwed-up kids and adults.
“I grew up in a community in East Los Angeles (and) had friends who went the wrong way,” said Monte E. Perez, who has headed L.A. Mission since May 2011. “They were either in gangs or didn't finish school. They needed an opportunity to find themselves, to get a second chance, to re-create themselves to the human beings that they are.
“I feel an empathy for that population.”
For nearly two decades, L.A. Mission College has worked with the Los Angeles County Office of Education to teach college-credit courses at juvenile halls in Malibu, Santa Clarita and Sylmar. Three of four students pass.
Chefs from the school's Culinary Arts Institute teach incarcerated girls at the county's Road to Success Academy at Camp Joseph Scott in Santa Clarita everything from how to keep a kitchen clean and slice and dice an onion to the best way to bake focaccia and whip up a French souffle.
“The interactive ‘hands-on' culinary aspect allows students to have real experience in preparation techniques, methods of cookery, along with developing skills and confidence,” said Louis Zandalasini, the institute's head chef and chair of professional studies, in an email about the college-credit courses.
This fall, the college went one step further by partnering with a gang intervention agency that has long directed at-risk kids to better jobs through union apprenticeship construction programs.
Communities in Schools of the San Fernando Valley and Greater Los Angeles soon aims to funnel 100 young adults into training programs run by Laborers' Local 300 and Southern California Laborers Apprenticeship.
The unions then aim to shuttle graduates into hundreds of Los Angeles Community College District building-program jobs, from pouring concrete foundations to welding structural beams and stairways.
At the same time, college counselors and teachers will be providing personal-development classes, as well as career, technical education and training.
This spring, the college is reaching out to county inmates at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic with a class in social ethics and a media-arts course — in conjunction with Hollywood Impact Studios — that covers sound editing, set construction and other entertainment industry skills.
“I think what they're doing is wonderful,” said Steve Springer, spokesman for the L.A. Community College District. “While they are as dedicated to student success as any of our (nine) colleges in Los Angeles, they have also not lost sight of the needs of the greater community as well.”
“We're not just about (university) transfers,” Perez said during a recent meeting with social service and labor leaders. “We're about workforce. We're about jobs. And that includes at-risk youth. If they can get jobs, they'll be able to reduce violence.”
William “Blinky” Rodriguez, executive director of Communities in Schools, knows something about violence. The former world-class kickboxer has worked since the 1970s to stem gang activity. Two decades ago, his 16-year-old son was killed in a drive-by shooting.
“We've been in this community our whole lives,” Rodriguez said. “So we're picking individual kids who want change, who want to reduce violence in this community.”
“I want to challenge these young people to enter our program, then enter Mission College” said Javier Nuñez, president of Laborers' Local 300. “We don't want to see (just) laborers. We want to see superintendents and people in managerial positions.”
Franco hopes to be one of those managers. He grew up hard, the son of immigrants who moved to the northeast Valley. Before long, he was in a tagging crew. Then he was challenged by the Columbus Street Gang. Franco recalls their message as either join us “or it's on — we'll be enemies.”
He joined, he said, and was soon living the high life, earning $1,000 a day selling crack. By the time he hit 18, however, he'd joined the lowlifes, serving time in Folsom for drug sales.
It was during his time in prison that Franco grew disgusted. But while locked up, he learned to weld. And when he got out, he met Rodriguez, who talked to him about the possibilities of a better life. He served a union apprenticeship, became a journeyman and landed $26-an-hour union jobs across Los Angeles.
For the past two years, Franco has been studying and playing soccer at L.A. Mission College, while moving toward his dream of becoming a structural engineer.
Now awash in the career's requisite advanced math, he hopes to transfer to a university and play soccer. And someday, he'd like to wear a tie at a construction site.
“I'm excited about the change,” said Franco, his almond-shaped hazel eyes glittering above upper arms slathered with tattoos of buxom babes. “It's hard to be in prison, then leave and be a member of society, because you don't have the social skills.
“My ultimate goal is to have a happy home, to have a family. I want to change my bloodline. I want my kids to go to college. I want them to be successful.
“I don't want them to go through what I went through.”
California school district hires firm to monitor students' social media
by Michael Martinez
A suburban Los Angeles school district is now looking at the public postings on social media by middle and high school students, searching for possible violence, drug use, bullying, truancy and suicidal threats.
The district in Glendale, California, is paying $40,500 to a firm to monitor and report on 14,000 middle and high school students' posts on Twitter, Facebook and other social media for one year.
Though critics liken the monitoring to government stalking, school officials and their contractor say the purpose is student safety.
As classes began this fall, the district awarded the contract after it earlier paid the firm, Geo Listening, $5,000 last spring to conduct a pilot project monitoring 9,000 students at three high schools and a middle school. Among the results was a successful intervention with a student "who was speaking of ending his life" on his social media, said Chris Frydrych, CEO of the firm.
That intervention was significant because two students in the district committed suicide the past two years, said Superintendent Richard Sheehan. The suicides occurred at a time when California has reduced mental health services in schools, Sheehan said.
"We were able to save a life," Sheehan said, adding the two recent suicides weren't outside the norm for school districts. "It's just another avenue to open up a dialogue with parents about safety."
In another recent incident, a student posted a photo of what appeared to be a gun, and a subsequent inquiry determined the gun was fake, Sheehan said.
Still, school administrators spoke with the parents of the student, who wasn't disciplined, the superintendent said.
"We had to educate the student on the dangers" of posting such photos, Sheehan said. "He was a good kid. ... It had a good ending."
In fact, no student has yet to be disciplined under the monitoring, but it's not out of the question if analysts find a message warranting action, such as a threat of a campus shooting, Sheehan said this week.
"I can see turning it over to police. That would be a situation in which discipline would follow," he said.
Frydrych's firm scours the social media postings of Glendale students aged 13 and older -- the age at which parental permission isn't required for the school's contracted monitoring -- and sends a daily report to principals on which students' comments could be causes for concern, Frydrych said.
The company won't disclose its methods and practices in gathering the students' messages, but it does use key words in its searches. The firm also didn't disclose how it confirms the youths are indeed students of the district.
To do the work, Frydrych employs no more than 10 full-time staffers -- as well as "a larger portion" of contract workers across the globe who labor a maximum of four hours a day because "the content they read is so dark and heavy," Frydrych said.
"It's mostly kids hanging onto a thread of life," Frydrych said, "and they're posting to people also hanging on to a thread."
He declined to disclose how many school campuses have retained his firm, founded this past January in Hermosa Beach, California. Frydrych has been providing technology services to school districts the past 10 years.
Geo Listening also monitors whether students are talking about drug use, cutting class or violence. The firm even ascertains whether pupils are using their smartphone during class time, Frydrych said.
While critics say the Glendale schools' contract is an invasion of privacy, Frydrych said his firm helps schools bridge a digital-age communications "chasm."
"Parents and school district personnel -- they are not able to effectively listen to the conversation where it's happening now," Frydrych said. "The notion about talking in class is about as old-fashioned as a Studebaker, no offense to the makers of the car.
"When was the last time you sent a kid to the principal's office for talking in class too much? I just don't think it happens too much. So what we kept seeing is the chasm keeps building between how students communicate and the ability to tell adults about what's going on in their lives," he said. "I thought we could bridge that gap."
Some experts in digital media and privacy, however, take exception.
"This is the government essentially hiring a contractor to stalk the social media of the kids," said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that defends privacy, free speech and consumer rights.
"When the government -- and public schools are part of the government -- engages in any kind of line-crossing and to actually go and gather information about people away from school, that crosses a line," Tien said.
He disagreed with school officials who say they are monitoring only public postings.
"People say that's not private: It's public on Facebook. I say that's just semantics. The question is what is the school doing? It's not stumbling into students -- like a teacher running across a student on the street. This is the school sending someone to watch them," Tien said.
Sandy Russell, president of the school district's PTA, said parents have many questions about the monitoring, a topic that will be addressed later this month when the superintendent makes his regular appearance at a PTA meeting.
Parents want to know how and why this is being done, Russell said.
"If it supports a child in a difficult situation -- whether it's bullying or stress level -- and if it helps, any parent would be thrilled to have the help. But how is that happening?" Russell said.
"When you find something you're concerned about, what are you doing? Do you approach the child, with or without the parents? What does this mean? When people don't have information, they make up scenarios," Russell said. "Some of the concerns I've heard is when kids say something nasty about a teacher, will they get in trouble? I understand that's not even remotely possible."
Superintendent Sheehan said students won't be disciplined for commonplace criticism.
"As far as anything said about teachers, as long as it's appropriate, it will be ignored," he said.
Frydrych's firm doesn't hack into private postings by students, nor their e-mail or text messages.
"I find it interesting that people keep asking if we're doing something illegal or snooping or eavesdropping, but what we're actually doing is looking at public posts," Frydrych said. "We don't see any private posts."
Students can adjust their privacy settings if they don't want the world to see their tweets or Facebook updates.
Frydrych's analysts stay abreast of the symbols, phonetic spellings, abbreviations, initials and other code-speak that youths type on social media.
Hate, for example, could be spelled "h8," and teens may refer to drugs with such words as "red," "rolling," and "blunt," Frydrych said.
In another example, Frydrych's firm learned how youths use drugs such as liquid hashish through vaporizers, or "vapes," which are devices like electronic cigarettes that allow for inhalation without creating smoke, Frydrych said.
Teachers may not be aware that students are dipping their mouths into their jacket in order to take a hit off their "vapor pen," Frydrych said.
Frydrych's team will be able to spot whether the student or a classmate posts a public message about that activity -- with a message stating, for example, "can't believe a kid is getting high in geography right now, sucking on their vape," Frydrych said.
What school officials do with the daily findings of Geo Listening is up the district, Frydrych said.
"This isn't about our company questioning parents," he said. "We fully respect the challenges of being parents.
"We enforce the code of student conduct for every school we serve" by compiling a day-by-day report, he said. "It's up to the district to handle it."
His firm is about to expand schools' monitoring capacity with a new smartphone app that allows students and parents to anonymously report to and correspond with school officials about conduct violations.
"Honestly, we're not spying on kids. Can we focus back on the problem: The problem is we're not listening effectively," Frydrych said. "And we're shifting that."
Community policing returns to Montclair
by DIANE HERBST
After a half-decade hiatus, community policing has returned to Montclair with an announcement Monday about new strategies to police the township using a Community Services Unit.
The plan is for a small, mobile team led by a seasoned detective sergeant to use one-on-one connections made with residents to not only reduce crime but improve the quality of life in various Montclair neighborhoods.
Detective Sgt. Tyrone Williams and officers Jacqueline Allen and Rikki Cook on Mission Street the day their new unit was announced.
"We want to hear from the residents. We need their help," said Montclair Police Department Chief David Sabagh, speaking on Mission Street near an area that has had a high incidence of gun violence this year. "The community is the eyes and ears of the Police Department, and we can't be everywhere at once."
Earlier this year, multiple shootings occurred within a relatively small area - on Mission Street, Greenwood Avenue and Elmwood Avenue - and led to increasing patrols using the MPD and the Essex County Sheriff's Office to quell residents' fears.
Municipal leaders said that the Community Services Unit, along with a new Street Crime Unit and regular foot patrols in the area, will be a long-term solution for a turnaround.
Detective Sgt. Tyrone Williams will command the unit that includes officers Jacqueline Allen and Rikki Cook. All three reside in Montclair and say they have deep roots in the community. Another officer will be added by Oct. 1, with two or three more joining soon after.
Williams, a detective for more than a decade, said community input has been important to solve crimes. "Any major crime we were able to solve, the thing that led to a successful conclusion came from people in the community."
A questionnaire will be distributed to discover the issues most concerning residents, Williams said. "We have to go to the people in the community," he said, "to see how we can partner with them." The unit will wear casual blue shirts in recognition of Montclair High School's color of "Mountie blue."
After the presentation, a woman on Mission Street who has lived there since 1965, welcomed the news of the unit. When asked how the street's changed since she moved in, the resident, who declined to give her name, said: "For the worse."
As if on cue, a 40-something man in a black T-shirt stormed past the woman while yelling at a young man hanging out in front of a house with a group of about eight others. "What are you doing?" the older man screamed.
After corralling the young man, the pair walked off as the older man said angrily: "Those guys are going to jail. You have a job, your life is on the right track."
Spread thin, Providence police adjust how they investigate gangs, violent crimes
by AMANDA MILKOVITS
PROVIDENCE — Crime hasn't dropped by much in the city, but the number of police officers has.
The foot patrols are gone. There are fewer patrol officers, fewer detectives, fewer narcotics officers, fewer people investigating gangs and violent crime, and fewer officers posted in the city's public schools. The number of police districts, developed 10 years ago when the department adopted a community-policing strategy, has dropped from nine to seven and is expected to drop further. Although there have been some promotions, 18 higher-ranking positions remain vacant.
The loss of personnel has prompted changes in how the police target and investigate gangs and violent crimes. With fewer officers and less money, the police administration has adjusted how the department responds to violent crime.
Police Chief Hugh Clements Jr. and Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Paré say they've sought ways to be creative — using crime data to predict the city's hot spots and follow patterns, developing a better system of tracking gangs and gang associates, and employing a crime analyst, on loan from the National Guard, to help them prevent and investigate crimes.
The roster at the Providence Police Department is down to its lowest number in 18 years — 412 officers on the books, down 15 percent from a high of 487 in 2008-09, and 427 officers just nine months ago. The number of officers working is actually lower, with 24 currently out due to illness, disciplinary action or injuries on duty. (The department is authorized to staff a roster of 430, down from the peak of 494 in the mid-2000s.)
Even so, violent crime remains down by 3 percent since the beginning of the year. While the number of shootings is the same, there are fewer homicides: 11 as of Sept. 11, compared with 15 this time last year. And, with 95 guns seized in crimes so far, the department could come close to last year's total of 130 guns — even with fewer officers on the streets.
The Police Department averages about 123,000 calls for service a year. “Yes, there's a lot, and it's a busy city,” Paré said in a recent interview. “It's taxing, but these men and women are delivering.”
The Police Department was flush with federal funds just a few years ago, but cutbacks in federal programs that funded community policing and targeted violent crime have been drastic. This fiscal year's allotment of about $242,000 is the lowest in a decade — nearly $200,000 less than last year and far under the last decade's high of $8.5 million in fiscal year 2005, according to department records.
Two years ago the department faced the threat of a layoff under the city's financial troubles as Mayor Angel Taveras sought savings of $6 million. “We were on the cusp of losing 78 officers,” said Clements.
Negotiations with the police union prevented a layoff, but the department still faced losses through attrition. The chief said they anticipated the reduction in staff to the current low level. “We knew this summer would be difficult.”
The department's budget for 2013-2014 is $65.5 million, up about $5 million from last year, with an overtime budget of $1.6 million. While the upcoming police academy will eventually fill some of the vacancies, the department's roster will not reach previous heights.
The reduction in staffing has had an impact on community-policing strategy. Just 10 years ago, the city was divided into nine police districts, each led by a lieutenant to work as a local police chief, whose job is to decide how to solve and prevent crimes in his or her neighborhoods.
Many in the neighborhoods welcomed the concept, and the police were able to forge strong connections with residents and businesses. But with fewer officers, the police department has reduced the number of districts, which means the remaining lieutenants have larger areas to cover — and leaving some worried their concerns will be lost in the shuffle.
“We need to have our own district commander,” said Kari Lang, the executive director of the West Broadway Neighborhood Association, which works closely with the police. “I do feel for the city being spread thin, but we pay taxes to have these services. We work as a team.”
Lt. Luis San Lucas, who has been running the district that includes West Broadway, Federal Hill and the West End since January 2009, is being transferred to head the new police academy. His replacement hasn't been named, and there's a strong possibility that the neighborhoods in his district will be absorbed by others.
As district commander, San Lucas took on quality-of-life issues such as “nuisance houses,” targeting 300 houses with problems involving gangs, drugs and violence. The latest incident occurred at 17 Hudson St., where several Asian gang members live and where a shooting took place, records show. San Lucas plans to bring that issue before the City Nuisance Task Force this month.
Clements declined comment on any plans to merge the districts, except to say that changes are coming soon.
There has to be change, the chief said. The nine police districts were mapped out back when the police administration hoped to have more than 500 police officers, he said. But the department never reached that goal, and as the roster has dropped, the force has been spread thin, he said.
Clements wants to keep the same community policing model in place. To do that, there will be fewer districts, and fewer lieutenants commanding more neighborhoods and a larger geographic area.
Residents will still have a lieutenant as their “go-to person,” Clements said. While the district commander will have more work, he or she will also have more sergeants and officers in the district.
Crime goes on, particularly gang violence. There are about 35 gangs in Providence, and roughly 2,000 people identified as gang members — although a small percentage of them are actually committing crimes, said Maj. David Lapatin. “Gangs are a very big problem in the city,” he said.
The police have to be more efficient, Lapatin said. After a recent review showed that most gang arrests were men ages 18 to 22, Lapatin had the four-member gang unit moved out of the youth services bureau and into the detective bureau to work more closely with the violent crime task force and the investigators dealing with adult offenders.
Everyone on the force — detectives and patrol officers — will be gathering information about gang members: who they're with, the kind of vehicle they drive, places they frequent. The analyst will collect the information and disseminate it to everyone on the job to help the police make connections faster when crimes are committed, Lapatin said.
One example is the murder of 12-year-old Aynis Vargas, who was shot and killed at a graduation party in the Hartford Park housing projects. Surveillance cameras didn't film the shooting, but they did capture shots of a distinctive-looking van circling suspiciously and parking nearby. When a member of the Harriet Street gang reported it stolen — and then miraculously found it in rival gang territory — the officer who took the stolen-vehicle report knew it had been seen at the murder. That led detectives to determine that he and at least one other friend were involved in the murder.
“Here's a kid who can come from Harriet Street, come to the Hartford projects, and shoot into a crowd without any worry about the police,” Lapatin said. “Things are going to change. We're going to be out there, more active, more pinpoint intelligence, and more eyes on people.”
Along with tracking their associates, the police are also making life uncomfortable on the gangs' turf. On Harriet Street, where gang members dared the police not to show up alone, officers have been coming down hard, with more patrols and arrests, down to violations as minor as blocking a sidewalk.
“With fewer people, you have to do more with less,” Lapatin said.
Out in the city's public schools, which had 14 school resource officers at one time, there are now 10. Those officers are assigned to the schools with the most incidents: two officers at the Providence Career and Technical Academy, two at Hope High School, and a second officer added to Mount Pleasant High School. DelSesto Middle School, Roger Williams Middle School, Gilbert Stuart Middle School and the Juanita Sanchez Complex each have a school resource officer.
Sgt. Michael Wheeler and Andre Thibault, the director of school operations and student support, worked together to determine where the officers were most needed, said Providence Public School Department spokeswoman Christina O'Reilly.
They came to the same conclusion about where to assign the officers, O'Reilly said. Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School and E-Cubed had fewer problems, so both lost their officers, while Mount Pleasant gained another.
Ideally, there would be enough officers for all of the schools, O'Reilly said. “I know our school resource officers become very much a part of our community,” she said. “They're an adult face, the face of authority, but they also can be a confidante.”
Although those schools and others won't have a regular police presence, the patrol officers working those beats will be visiting frequently. The lieutenants in charge of the districts also make regular visits and are accessible to all of the schools, she said.
Wheeler, who has been in charge of the gang unit for years, is leading the school resource officers in targeting at-risk youths and those recruiting for gangs. The gang officers conducted home visits with gang members' families, talking to parents about what their children were doing. Wheeler said the school resource officers will do the same.
Their goal is to deter younger teens from joining gangs — as well as targeting the “recruiters.”
“We'll talk to the kids, call the parents in, and also look for ways to prevent the kids from joining gangs,” Wheeler said.
For teens who want out of the gang life, the police will connect them with Family Services of Rhode Island and the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence. Wheeler is also recruiting for the police department's Explorers program.
As the gang unit focuses on adult offenders, the school resource officers will keep an eye on the youths. “It's an opportunity to watch those kids. We'll be watching who's doing the recruiting, who's influencing them, and how we can move them out,” Wheeler said.
Meanwhile, the department is gearing up for a new police academy — its first since 2008. The department will eventually hire 40 new officers, using a $4.9-million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to pay the first three years of salary and benefits for 18 of the officers.
They'll graduate in the spring, Clements said, into a city that needs them.