Los Angeles leads the nation in gang crimes, with more than 1,000 gangs and 80,000 gang members in the County. Approximately 90% of Los Angeles' students living in gang violence “hot zones” have been exposed to chronic violence, and these children suffer from increased levels of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Urban Peace believes that children are unable to fulfill their highest potential while living and attending schools in unsafe environments. We have worked with 18 community-based and several public sector organizations around the Belmont Schools Zone of Choice to implement our comprehensive violence reduction strategy outlined in the 2007, A Call to Action. The organizations and people they serve revealed shocking facts about the impact of gang violence in the community.
Urban Peace worked with the community in the Belmont area of Los Angeles to implement a Safe Routes to Schools project (see detailed information below). We are now using the lessons learned in Belmont to inform our work to establish Safe Routes to Schools in the Watts neighborhood.
Belmont School Safe Passages Initiative
After an exhaustive process of analyzing both needs and assets in the community, the collaborative focused on one clear problem – ensuring that students and their families can travel to and from school safely, and without fear of harassment or violence.
We are calling this the Belmont School Safe Passages Initiative. Parents, teachers, police and local business owners are teaming up to staff street corners, escort students and patrol routes to school so that gang members stay away and kids can walk safely to school. What's more, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is instituting comprehensive safety and violence prevention curriculum in the classrooms, to help students understand what they are facing and how to stay safe. Even the Los Angeles Department of Transportation may be joining in to upgrade local streets – one corner at Wilshire and Union is considered the 5th most unsafe in the nation! The School Safe Passages Initiative will:
- Increase student attendance
- Decrease the dropout rate
- Decrease truancy levels
- Increase the perceptions of safety on the part of students and parents
- Increase the participation of students and parents in after school activities
- Decrease crime and violence around participating schools
- Increase academic performance of students
The 2011 pilot year focused on Liechty Middle School and Miguel Contreras High School, working with approximately 15-30 volunteers, 3-6 law enforcement personnel, at least 15 school personnel and thousands of students to coordinate efforts and provide training for maximum impact.
The Belmont Schools Zone of Choice lies in the Pico-Union/Westlake area of Los Angeles. More than a third of families live below the poverty line and 98% of residents identify as Latino. Twenty-seven different gangs consider this area their “territory,” with struggles over that territory terrorizing the residents. Advancement Project’s Community Safety Scorecard found that, when analyzing gang and violent crime by ZIP Code, the Belmont neighborhood ranked 89 out of 104 ZIP codes in Los Angeles City and received a ranking of “F” for community safety.
Children are unable to get to and from school safely, especially if they dare to cross the many invisible lines in the neighborhood. They are harassed, bullied, recruited by gangs and threatened with violence as they walk the few blocks from home to school.
As a result, students and families base their choice of school on gang affiliation (missing out on the benefits of a zone of choice) or students begin missing school and can ultimately drop out of school altogether. In this predominantly Latino neighborhood, dropout rates for Latinos have climbed to 62%. When asked which one of 37 issues needed the most urgent attention in their school, 97% of Miguel Contreras High School students answered “gangs.”
In addition, enrollment remains low in many of the free after-school and parent support programs offered on school campuses throughout Belmont despite demonstrated need. Parents and students stay away from programs such as obesity reduction, family strengthening, technology skills, and civic engagement workshops out of fear for their safety. Parents and students then become increasingly isolated and inhibited from seeking social and emotional community support; support essential in coping with the stress and trauma associated with living with gang violence and high crime.
The Belmont Schools Zone of Choice’s goal is that middle school students and their parents are able to choose a school that best fits the students’ needs and talents. They have their choice of four high school campuses that offer college preparatory curricula, and prepare all students for college careers. The four high school campuses are further divided into 10 autonomous “small pilot schools” from which incoming 9th graders are able to choose.
Based on a successful model in Boston, the zone of choice was a leap forward for the LAUSD, opening up new academic opportunities for low-income children and students of color. Foundations, individual and corporate donors, as well as the local, state and federal government have invested heavily in the Zone.
Nevertheless, the problem of gang violence threatens the success of this innovative program. To avoid the stress and fear of gang intimidation, students don't choose the school that is the best for their learning style and career ambition, but simply choose the one that is the “least dangerous.”
Safe Passages is a program that communities across the country have used with great success to ensure that their children are able to get to and from school safely. Other communities’ programs have divergent models, but often rely on law enforcement or parent volunteers at key corners, monitoring environmental or traffic hazards that endanger children.
The innovation of Urban Peace’s Safe Passages project is to integrate a powerful network of parent volunteers with the professional efforts of gang violence interventionists, community-based organizations, businesses, school personnel, the Mayor’s office and law enforcement.
This comprehensive effort will keep children safe, with interventionists and police collaborating with volunteers monitoring street action before and after school; community-based organizations and the school district providing coordination and family support; and teachers providing safety curriculum in the classroom. In addition, the LAUSD has agreed to work with the Safe Passages project to create and distribute multilingual public education materials about ensuring safety in and around schools, as well as provide teachers with the training necessary to implement anti-violence curriculum.
Urban Peace initiated and leads the Belmont School Safety Collaborative, a community stakeholder network made up of 21 community-based organizations, six government agencies, residents and youth. Each partner in the Collaborative has a unique role, with Urban Peace serving as the coordinator of the effort. Through the Collaborative, Urban Peace and our partners have built solid relationships with school officials that serve as the basis for effectively working with them on Safe Passages.
Key Collaborative Partners include:
- Alliance for Better Communities
- Aztecs Rising
- City of Los Angeles, Office of the Mayor
- Los Angeles Police Department
- Los Angeles Unified School District
- Los Angeles School Police Department
- UCLA School of Public Health, Injury Prevention Center
- Youth Policy Institute
Urban Peace has a statewide reputation for providing technical assistance to place-based initiatives in some of California’s most violent urban neighborhoods. And since 2009, Urban Peace has launched and run the Urban Peace Academy, a professional training and certification program for gang intervention workers. The interventionists will be an essential piece of establishing the community engagement necessary to ensure Safe Passages is effective.
Urban Peace has a track record of working with the L.A. Police and Sheriff's Departments, both in encouraging their commitment to community-based policing, and also in providing hands-on training to prepare police more effectively to deal with gang violence and its aftermath in communities. Urban Peace co-founder Connie Rice has worked closely with past LAPD Chief Bill Bratton and current Chief Charlie Beck, as well as with Sheriff Lee Baca, to ensure they understand the power of the comprehensive violence reduction strategy and the vital role community-based policing plays in its success.
For more information about Safe Passages and the Belmont Collaborative, please contact Susan Lee, Director of Urban Peace.