County using updated strategies to fight gangs

December 16, 2010 12:00 am  • 

In 1998, 17-year-old Michael Arreguin was killed in a drive-by Napa gang shooting that started in a fight over a flat tire. 

That was an era ago. 

Since then, high-profile gang crimes have waned, but the number of Napa County gang members has more than doubled after the fatal Norteño-Sureño battles in the late 1990s.

While Napa County prepares to finalize its Gang and Youth Violence Master Plan in the coming months, local agencies aren’t waiting to prevent youth dropouts and crime. They say that earlier intervention has made a difference. 

The year Arreguin was murdered, there were 300 Napa County gang members registered in Cal-Gang, a database that tracks California gang members. Today, there are 807.

The gang problem “is always there,” said Frances Ortiz-Chavez, director of Puertas Abiertas, a resource center for low-income Latinos. “Unless something big happens, it doesn’t come up front.”

Instead of wearing the red shirts of the Norteño gang and the blue shirts of the Sureños, students today flash symbols and wear tattoos, Ortiz-Chavez said. “It’s not as visible,” she said. “It’s more subtle.”

Just last Wednesday, Francisco Cervantes, 18, of Napa, allegedly flashed a gang sign at a Valley Oak School student and started kicking him, police said. He was booked into Napa County Jail on suspicion of causing great bodily harm. 

To combat these sorts of crimes, the Napa Police Department  started focusing less on intervention this year and more on prevention methods such as attendance. 

So far, it’s working. In the first semester of the new truancy program, attendance has improved in the Napa Valley Unified School District, records show. 

“When a kid isn’t in class, they’re usually doing something they shouldn’t be doing,” said Cmdr. Jeff Troendly. 

Before, when a student had six absences, the student and parent received a warning letter from the school. Now, they get a visit from a police officer first. 

“When the law enforcement gets involved, we’re not asking, we’re telling,” said Ken Chapman, a school resource officer at Valley Oak High School. “You are going to go to school. We carry the criminal charge.”

 Last year, 1,270 letters were sent to students with six or more absences, Troendly said.

In the first trimester of the 2010-2011 school year, only 146 letters were sent.

Napa police and school resource officers  said they are pleased with this about-face in low-attendance students.

“Before, we were more reactive focusing on fights,” Troendly said. “The kids who have problems generally have truancy issues. If we can get to them earlier, we can prevent from dealing with those problems later on.”

Many students have specific circumstances keeping them from school, Chapman said.

One Valley Oak student skipped class because he needed an eye prescription and was failing because he couldn’t read, he said. 

The student was too proud to ask for glasses, and his parents couldn’t afford them, Chapman said.

So Chapman gave his father $20 to buy glasses, and the student has had stellar attendance ever since, he said. 

On Friday, the Napa Police Chief Richard Melton, Napa Valley Unified School District Superintendent Patrick Sweeney and the President of the Hispanic Network Alicia Jaramillo met to share these new initiatives and collaborate.

They reviewed their recent successes, and came up with new ways to coordinate efforts in preventing gang violence.

Troendly asked the Hispanic Network to recruit bilingual and bicultural volunteers to assist the school resource officers in their truancy program. 

The network has plenty of eager volunteers who are passionate about snuffing out gang violence, Jaramillo said.

“Non-attendance leads to drop out leads to criminal behavior and one of those things is gang affiliation,” Jaramillo said. “Rather than put a Band-Aid on the problem, we’re looking to heal the problem.”