The Justice Department has given a $172,000 grant to three Arlington nonprofit organizations to continue funding a series of programs that aim to keep students out of gangs.
The initiatives — administered by the Hispanic Committe of Virginia and run by Barrios Unidos and the Greenbrier Learning Center — provide leadership training, mentoring services and tutoring to mostly Latino middle and high school students. Up to 400 Arlington teenagers are expected to participate in at least one of the programs this school year.
Providing students with a plethora of after-school activities and positive role models is the best way to ensure they will not fall prey to the lure of gang life, said U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, who helped secure the grant from the Justice Department.
These programs "are a great way to help our children avoid the pitfalls of violence and gang activity, and attain the American dream of prosperity and a life free of fear," Moran said during a Dec. 4 press conference in the Arlington County Board room.
The Greenbrier Learning Center will use the federal funding to continue to operate its after-school tutoring sessions at Kenmore Middle School. Every weekday counselors help students who are having trouble at school, or have been identified as vulnerable to joining a gang, complete their homework assignments.
"We provide a daily, safe alternative where the students can come, get help with their school work, spend time with friends and feel comfortable," said Erin Kliewer, Executive Director of the Greenbrier Learning Center.
Counselors also work one-on-one with students, focusing on improving their social skills, addressing behaviorial problems and boosting their self-esteem. Of the students who attend the program on a regular basis, 84 percent have increased their school attendance and 66 percent have improved their grades, Kliewer said.
Additionally, the center holds workshops on the dangers of becoming involved in gangs, and encourages older students to enroll in a 3-month internship program where they formulate anti-gang presentations and speak to other groups of students.
Having recreation centers and community groups that provide teenagers with a supervised place to interact is crucial to disuading them from becoming involved with gangs, said Robert Vilchez, the county’s gang task force coordinator.
"Kids join gangs partially because of boredom," Vilchez said. "If we can get them more involved in experiences and programs like these," gangs will seem less alluring.
THIS IS EXACTLY what Barrios Unidos attempts to do with its group of mentors and outreach counselors. The organization also concentrates its efforts on "intervention" — working to get those flirting with gangs to change their behavior and social environment.
Kevin Sanchez, an outreach specialist with Barris Unidos and sophomore at George Mason University, said he strives to form a personal bond with teenagers in the program, getting to know their interests and "dreams."
From there he can begin to talk to them about his own experience with gangs and demonstrate the alternatives to a life of violence and gang-banging.
"I hang out with them and show them a different [path]" Sanchez said. "I expose them to leadership and other opportunities."
But there is a limit to how many students organizations like Barrios Unidos and the Greenbrier Learning Center can reach. What is needed, those interviewed said, is greater participation from community leaders and businesses.
"Resolving the issues of gangs does not fall to one organization," said County Board member Walter Tejada. "There has to be a whole community involvement."
There also needs to be a larger outreach program to parents to educate them on ways to keep their children away from gangs. Vilchez said the members of the police department's gang task force are starting to give more lectures to schools and parents groups.
"Arlington parents definitely need to be more engaged with their kids and encourage them to be involved in these after-school programs," he said.
Because gangs are fluid networks, with members frequently joining and dropping out, it is difficult for police to identify the number of Arlington residents who are in involved in them.
In an interview earlier this year, Det. Rick Rodriguez estimated that there are between 250 and 300 core gang members in Arlington, and in 2005 there were 200 gang-related criminal incidents — ranging from destruction of property to assaults.
In recent years, the number of gang members in the county has declined, police said. Vilchez credits increased police surveillance, better enforcement policies and the success of suppression and intervention programs like those funded by the federal grant.
But officials warned that those who may have escaped the grasp of local gangs can easily fall back into their old habits if they are not supported by family and community organizations.
"We can't write off anyone who can become a constructive member of society," Rep. Moran warned.