Yakima mural

A mural, which was commissioned by officers on the Yakima Police Department’s Gang Prevention Unit at Sixth Street and East Lincoln Avenue, was tagged in August 2018.

Yakima’s anti-gang youth prevention pilot program has ended, with data showing marginal improvements in the behavior and academic achievement of the 10 youths involved.

Yakima has 26 identified street gangs and 1,300 individuals who are gang members or associated with gangs, according to a city report. Of those, 93 percent are rated as extremely or somewhat violent, and 89 percent are rated as highly or somewhat organized.

A yearlong state grant, covering July 1, 2018, through June 30, provided $230,000 for city officials to devise a sustainable and organized response to gang activity and youth violence.

The resulting program — the Gang Reduction Initiative and Task Force, or GRIT — created a steering committee to oversee decisions; the “Village,” a network of organizations with resources to help youths; and the Yakima Youth Leadership Program, through which 10 middle school students identified as being at risk for gang involvement met weekly with an intervention specialist.

Juliana van Olphen, an independent evaluation consultant with San Francisco University who analyzed the data and interviewed eight of the youths at the end of the program, noted that most showed improvements in their GPAs, attitudes, behaviors, communication with parents, and interactions with peers and school staff.

But she also noted that a few students still were suspended from school during the program and that significant challenges undercut the program’s potential impact, including the small number of students reached and multiple delays that left only three months of the yearlong grant for students’ actual interactions with their mentor.

The pilot program

Ten youths — five each from Lewis & Clark and Franklin middle schools — participated in the program. Four were female, six were male, and a majority had parents who identified as Hispanic or Latino.

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School staff largely identified the 10 children, looking at students who showed a decline in school attendance or grades, association with older students, a discipline record involving drug use, a lack of interest in sports, and documented gang behavior, according to the report.

The City Council approved Gary Garza, a substitute teacher with the Yakima School District and a former Yakima Police Department school resource officer, as the intervention specialist in March.

The final report notes that youths met with Garza an average of 14 times each during the program’s duration, with an average of 30 minutes per session on topics including effective communication, social media awareness, drug and gang awareness, bullying and conflict resolution.

For most students, that equaled twice each week, though the report notes that half of the students missed a weekly meeting with Garza due to his other commitments, including council meetings and radio interviews that were separate components of the program.

The report notes that Garza created incentives for the youths to work toward that provided motivation to improve their attendance, behavior, and grades — including awarding gift cards to local restaurants for students who passed the challenges. Youths enjoyed receiving the gift cards and being able to treat their families to dinner out or helping with groceries.

Beyond the impact on the students the program aimed to help, Van Olphen noted that the city’s program had increased networking and collaboration between local agencies that help youths, with 150 interested organizations having attended Village meetings.

Challenges

Van Olphen said the late start of the program due to delays imposed by the City Council, challenges in hiring a project coordinator and difficulties with gaining support from the Yakima School District posed the biggest challenges to the program’s success.

Funds became available July 1, 2018, but the steering committee didn’t meet until September due to restructuring imposed by the City Council. A project coordinator wasn’t hired until mid-

October. The council approved Garza as the intervention specialist in March, but then students had to be identified at the schools. So he did not meet with them until April, leaving less than three months until the end of the school year.

Van Olphen noted that left little time for Garza to build the needed rapport with students, along with end-of-the-year state testing and interacting with students at a time when many were experiencing fatigue or burnout or anticipating summer break.

The compressed schedule also forced Garza to focus on the students, rather than the students and their families, as identified in the initiative.

School staff interviewed about the program were grateful for the intervention, according to the report, but also said the program needed to start earlier to allow Garza to build needed rapport with students and that the three-month intervention was too short to see a noticeable change in students.

Staff also said that the program should extend through the summer, when youths are most in need of guidance and support, and that more students should have been included, according to the report.

The future of youth gang prevention

Moving forward, Van Olphen suggested several courses of action for the city.

Key recommendations included more opportunities for local agencies to network and creating an interactive database of resources and agencies interested in continuing GRIT’s works, more accessible and affordable after-school activities for youths, and working with the Yakima School District to reduce disciplinary actions resulting in long-term suspensions.

The report noted that the future of GRIT’s steering committee has not yet been determined. It’s likely that the group will continue to meet, though not monthly as it did under the program, she said.

Village meetings also likely will continue, though they’re not funded. As part of the final report for the grant, city staff noted they’ll be looking to lean more on current Village participants to keep the meetings going.

The city does not plan to continue with radio interviews about prevention and health information on KDNA and Townsquare Media platforms, saying that it was difficult to measure the effectiveness of the efforts, though the information likely was helpful to listeners.

The youth leadership program is on hiatus due to the lack of funding, though progress made during the grant period — from establishing eligibility criteria, survey questions and a curriculum, and working relationships with the Yakima School District and Education District 105 — will allow the program to pick up again when funding becomes available, the report noted.

The final report notes the city has secured additional funding of $300,000 for five years through the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration under the Health Transitions Program, of which $180,000 per year is earmarked for direct services to youth. Staff have started working with Comprehensive Health Care and is likely to use the funds for mental health counseling for youths.

City staff also have applied for a $230,000 youth gang suppression grant offered through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Additionally, GRIT is part of a larger grant application by the Opportunities Industrialization Center of Washington for mentoring youth, aged 12 to 17, with $500,000 payable over three years.

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.