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Call it prevention, call it intervention. Call it whatever you want. All experts agree: There's no substitute for parental involvement.

In Marcie Escobedo's south central Phoenix neighborhood, the fragile calm was shattered one February day in 1990 when word spread that Greenfield Elementary School had been sprayed with bullets. Although the news eventually proved to be a myth, the event got parents' attention.

Escobedo recalls a community meeting of more than 200 parents and teachers. The media showed up.

"The only thing I remember . . . is two parents finally getting up -- and the TV cameras focused on them -- and one parent saying, 'Your child is a gang member. You can't control him.' And the other parent saying, 'I know he is, but I'm asking for help.' They weren't listening to each other, they were just throwing blame," she says.

Escobedo knew what to do. When the school principal asked her to head the PTA, she agreed with a condition: that he allow her to invite Valley Interfaith Project along.

The first step: What did parents want?

They were stumped. No one had ever asked. Soon, though, they had worked up a list.

At the top: a safe, enriching after-school program for their kids.

"Not a baby-sitting program, they were very definite about that," Escobedo recalls over a recent lunch at Los Dos Molinos, not far from St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church, where Escobedo has belonged since she moved to the neighborhood in the early '70s.

"They wanted something that if their kids were behind in school, that this would supplement it and enrich their learning capacity."

And so Escobedo worked with other parents to create an after-school program that fit the bill. The program was free, run out of St. Catherine's, and eventually drew kids from all over south Phoenix. The theme that first year was "Exploring Cultural Diversity Through the Arts." The parents wanted their kids to learn about art and music, since public schools had decimated those programs. They also demanded tutoring.

With VIP's guidance, Escobedo went to City Hall and fought for funding for after-school programs, including her own. They hired art and music consultants and recruited education majors from Arizona State University who needed internships to do the tutoring. Snacks came from St. Mary's Food Bank.

Yes, there were gang members -- or at least wanna-bes -- in the program. Escobedo is sure of it. But it wasn't an issue.

"We didn't label them. . . . We treated them like, 'You are kids. You are community kids. Your parents want you to learn, you want to learn,'" she says.

The difference between the St. Catherine's program and other after-school programs, Escobedo says, came down to parental involvement.

"There was ownership in decision-making. They [parents] weren't an advisory. They weren't there just to raise money. They were shaping what they wanted for their kids, they weren't just sitting and listening to someone else tell them what they needed," she says.

Escobedo is proud of the difference she's made, both in her own household and in her community. Her son graduated in May from ASU with a business degree. Her daughter is attending South Mountain Community College.

And while there is still violence in south central Phoenix, Escobedo says it's nothing like it was in 1990, when she sat in church and prayed her family would survive the week. She warns that efforts must continue.

"Gangs and violence will come to where people are not involved in their community."

Federal leaders are interested in making sure people are involved. And they're using Arizona as the first test site of a new kind of holistic prevention program.

The U.S. Department of Justice, Arizona State University and Governor Jane Dee Hull's office are in the planning stages of developing a pilot program called "Sustainable Safe Communities." Although a few efforts have been made in individual communities around the country, this will be the first statewide program of its kind, says George Weisz, Hull's criminial justice adviser.

Federal funds, state grants and other revenue will be bundled together and focused on just a handful of communities: urban, rural and tribal. The idea is to focus not just on law enforcement, but on social and economic factors -- prevention programs, job training, infrastructure development -- that contribute to a safe, sound place to live.

Weisz says, "One of the toughest things we see, and it happens a lot, is cops go in and they're going to do a very good job of sweeping an area clean for a short period of time, and it just comes back. And the reason is, you don't have the follow-up with a lot of the resources you need to stop crime to begin with."

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Patti Epler
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Edward Lebow
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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.