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Talk to the Kids

news2Upcoming conference addresses youth violence in Santa Cruz County

Santa Cruz County is the second smallest county, geographically, in California. Yet, in 2011, it ranked 10th in the state for youth homicide rates, according to a study done by the Violence Policy Center.

This statistic is representative of a trend of youth violence many in the county have observed through anecdotal evidence—from the gunman inside Secret Garden Too preschool in 2010 to the 18-year-old young man killed outside a Pajaro Valley High School soccer game in Watsonville earlier this year, many feel it is increasingly true that Santa Cruz County youth are not as safe as they should be.

On Friday, Aug. 16, a group of educators, law enforcement officers, local organizations, and Santa Cruz County youth themselves will come together to address this issue, and try to make change. Turning the Curve on Youth Violence, a conference put on by the county’s Criminal Justice Council (CJC), comes after an initial community-wide summit on youth violence held last November, which kicked off a year-long assessment of the different factors contributing to and involved with youth violence.

The results of the assessment, which involved tactics as varied as police ride-alongs and peer-to-peer community safety surveys, will be released this coming November. Although they do not have all of their information compiled yet, Megan Joseph, director of community organizing at United Way of Santa Cruz County and a key player in putting together the event, says the conference comes at the perfect time.

“This was the right timing where we’re winding down on the assessment phase and looking to put a strategic plan together,” says Joseph. “We [will] hear from both local experts and people from the Bay Area and national experts who are already on the ground and doing things that are working that we could do here in our area. We hope that people will get excited about putting the plan together and become part of that process.”

Speakers at the conference include local teachers and law enforcement officials, national experts, and members of the Santa Cruz and Watsonville Youth City Councils. Some of these young people will speak as leaders in their community, while others will share their own personal stories related to youth violence. Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Michael Watkins says he’s most excited about the broad, preventive approach the conference will take.

“These kids don’t start gang-banging at 13 or 14. They start earlier than that, when they’re not far past preschool,” says Watkins. “If we’re going to be successful, we need to bring all the stakeholders to the table. We decided [to] start the school year off by taking a positive approach and bring everyone together in solving these problems.”

Watsonville Police Chief Manny Solano, who serves as chair of the CJC, echoes Watkins’ appreciation for the conference’s broad approach, and says that’s a strength one can find in both the CJC and in the county’s method for addressing youth violence as a whole.

“We want to start as young as we can, which is why we’re inviting a lot of educators to this conference to learn from others that have tried other types of programs,” says Solano. “We’re doing quite a bit in our county that is unique and forward-thinking, but we always know we can do better and that’s what we want to do with this conference.”

One of those effective programs already in place, Solano says, is Valor, a collaboration between Pajaro Valley School District and Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance, Inc. Valor focuses on finding students who are going down the wrong path early, and working to prevent this using a counseling model that involves the student’s entire family.

“The long-range benefits will be not just for that particular youth, but for their siblings that are also seeing that behavior and having it modeled before them,” says Solano.

It’s these types of methods and programs Solano hopes to see come out of Turning the Curve on Youth Violence. He says that violent crime in general is on the rise is Santa Cruz County, but it’s difficult to isolate data particularly pertaining to youth—another problem the CJC, which was reinstated in 2012 after a nine-year hiatus, helps to correct.

“We all work together,” Solano says, in reference to the law enforcement and educators who make up the CJC. “Because of that, we do know each other very well, but that doesn’t help the fact that our data systems couldn’t really talk to each other [before the CJC was reinstated] to get a good read on how we’re doing as a county. It was really just a guess sometimes.”

Solano says things have been much smoother since the CJC’s reinstatement, and the upcoming conference serves as an example of what can happen through collaboration. There’s one contingent that Solano, along with everyone else interviewed for this article, is most excited about working with.

“What makes this really promising to me is that we have not missed out on involving youth,” he says. “In my 30 years, I’ve never seen us involve youth to this degree, and it’s really cool. We’re always the ones to say what the youth need, but who better to tell us what youth need than the youth themselves?”

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