Study fails to stem gangs debate

L.A.’s biggest prevention and intervention program finds hope in data on participants’ performance. Others say the effort is not effective.

By Patrick McGreevy
Times Staff Writer

February 23, 2007

Under pressure to show that the L.A. Bridges program actually works, the operators of the city’s largest gang prevention effort released results of a study Thursday that sparked new debate about whether the city needs to rethink its anti-gang strategy.

The data from the city Community Development Department shows that although some middle school students targeted by L.A. Bridges have boosted or maintained their grades and attendance, most last year did not improve.

L.A. Bridges officials said they consider the findings encouraging given the types of students they are trying to help. But some city leaders said they were more skeptical, especially considering that gang membership and gang-related crime in Los Angeles are on the rise.

Amid new doubts about the program, which costs about $14 million annually, the city has replaced John Chavez as director of L.A. Bridges.

In addition, City Controller Laura Chick plans to audit the program, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has put its operators on notice that he is providing funding only through September, by which time he expects that a new comprehensive gang strategy will be developed.

“I don’t think it has been effective,” said Alex Alonso, a scholar on gang issues who has taught at USC. “For all the millions of dollars we’ve spent, I haven’t seen results.”

The debate comes as Police Chief William J. Bratton has launched a new assault on gang activity in the city, a campaign criticized by some for not also including a more aggressive effort to keep kids out of gangs. The crackdown has involved the shift of resources by the Los Angeles Police Department and other agencies to focus on 11 specific street gangs that officials say cause the most problems.

But although there has been much focus on L.A.’s law enforcement push, the effort to keep youths from joining gangs has received less attention.

The report released Thursday indicates that of the 1,786 “at risk” kids in L.A. Bridges who turned in at least two report cards last year, about 45% improved their grades. Grades stayed the same for 23% and declined for the rest.

Among that same group, only 21% improved their attendance.

“Those numbers are not satisfactory,” said Councilman Tony Cardenas, who heads a council committee considering an overhaul of L.A. Bridges. “If we got coordination and accountability, we could really get those numbers up dramatically.”

Cardenas’ committee is scheduled to receive the report from the Community Development Department, which oversees L.A. Bridges’ contracts, and discuss it at a special meeting today at 8:15 a.m. at City Hall.

Even though the majority of students did not improve grades or attendance, Sharon Morris, an assistant general manager of the department, defended the results.

“For the number of kids we are serving, we are very satisfied,” she said. “These are kids in low-income communities, and they have been identified as needing this program.”

The city’s premier gang prevention and intervention effort is being reevaluated because gang crime increased 15.7% in 2006 compared with the year before, including a 4% increase in gang-related homicides, with 272 killings, according to LAPD statistics.

Gang membership had been dropping but ended 2006 with an increase to 39,315 from 38,974 a year earlier. That means there were 341 more gang members.

The original L.A. Bridges program, aimed at keeping kids out of gangs, funds centers serving 27 of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s 73 middle schools.

L.A. Bridges targets middle school students ages 10 to 14 and is aimed at reducing their involvement in gangs. Goals include improving student performance and involving the community in helping the students.

Each caseworker is assigned 10 to 20 middle school students who are judged to be at risk, and the adults help the kids with homework, supervise them in after-school recreation, counsel their families and monitor their attendance at school.

L.A. Bridges II is an intervention program aimed at current and former gang members ages 14 to 25. The program has 64 gang intervention workers, who mentor 1,437 young people in gangs.

The results for Bridges II also sparked debate Thursday.

The Community Development Department reported that it managed 661 cases last year, including those of 175 people who were referred to city WorkSource job centers and 362 referred to other job training or placement.

Critics said the report fails to provide information that would better show whether the program is working — that is, how many gang members have quit gangs and how many middle school students have been kept from joining.

“How can you tell if you are reducing the gang problem unless you can tell how many young people you got out of gangs?” asked Connie Rice, director of Advancement Project Los Angeles, which last month released a city-financed study strongly criticizing L.A. Bridges and other city anti-gang programs as lacking focus, coordination and accountability.

The head of the department said his agency is improving its management and evaluation of L.A. Bridges. But General Manager Richard Benbow argued in the report to the City Council that as long as young people are being mentored and tutored after school, and referred to job training, they are less likely to be involved in a street gang.

“Any client connected to a departmental program represents a ‘success,’ because the alternatives — disconnection from social services and/or institutions — can lead to truancy, delinquency and criminal activity,” he wrote.

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