Elementary school kids are more likely to be flashing their colors a few years down the road if they have a lousy family life, beat up classmates, flunk or cut classes, have a relative in a gang, come home to an empty house after school or have a parent who is a drug user or dealer, the Arizona Department of Health Services says. The department calls these traits "pre-gang" activities.
Since Arizona has plenty of pre-gangsters, the health department recently convinced the federal Office of Substance Abuse Prevention to fork over nearly $1 million during the next three years for a program called "New Turf," which will focus on "gang prevention" and drug abuse.
The money, which was just granted to Arizona in late October, will be shared by Phoenix, Mesa, and Sierra Vista, where plenty of little pre-gangsters hang out, says Kristine Bell, program director of the health department's division of behavioral health.
The details of "New Turf" haven't been ironed out yet, but Bell says local mental-health clinics, schools and neighborhood groups in the three cities will single out a total of 400 nine- to fourteen-year-olds and over the next three years try to steer them clear of the world of crack dealing and drive-bys. The local groups will try to keep the kids busy, teach them how to make "good" friends and "help them handle whatever life throws at them."
"The whole idea is to let local people, not bureaucrats, handle the problem," she says.
Sierra Vista, a town of about 30,000 in Cochise County, was chosen right along with Phoenix and Mesa, Bell notes, because "known gang leaders are surfacing in Sierra Vista." The town's "proximity to the Mexican border" probably has something to do with its new influx of drug-dealing gangsters, she adds.
Bell says health officials figure "New Turf" will pay for itself if it ends up keeping kids out of gangs. "It will cost about $10,000 per kid over three years," she says. "But if a kid gets involved with crime and sent to Adobe Mountain, it costs a minimum of $27,000 per year."
Gang prevention in the elementary schools seems to be a trend these days. In Los Angeles, the street-gang capital of the country, the police department started a project called DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) in 1983. The cops, who say drug abuse and gang activity go hand-in-hand, send 68 officers to local schools to help fifth- and sixth-graders with their "self-esteem" and "decision-making," says Officer Robert Reid, a DARE staffer.
But the LAPD has no program that is as intensive as "New Turf." Reid says the cops spend only a total of seventeen days per semester in each school.