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Addressing the Issues of Youth Violence and Gangs in Janesville

Amy Brennan, Rose Smyrski, and Carrie Templeton

"It needs to be a community response, rather than one agency response."

—Don Mulry, Director of Rock County Human Services

Don Mulry's statement refers to his belief—and others'—that the entire Janesville community needs to take responsibility in handling child abuse and neglect cases in Rock County and must coordinate its efforts to reduce the instances and impact of youth violence and gangs.

Community leaders in Janesville acknowledge that a coordinated effort among police, county agents, schools, non-profits, and the private sector is necessary to send a strong message to youth and gang members that violence will not be tolerated.

Past Issues

The 4th Ward has been traditionally known as the "problem" area of Janesville. In 1992, community leaders, under the guidance of the United Way, decided to address the problems in their neighborhoods and especially in the 4th Ward by forming a group known as the ACTION Council, or Agencies Collaborating to Improve Our Neighborhoods. Out of the council's discussion came the Youth Issues and Gangs Committee, which met as a group during 1995 and early 1996. This committee's twenty community members included representatives from various groups including the schools, juvenile justice system, and high school youth. The committee held a series of panel discussions at a church, two schools, and a hospital, which allowed citizens to express their views on issues pertaining to youth and gangs. They also educated Marshall Middle School students by bringing an ex-gang member to the school to speak from his wheelchair about the dangers of drugs and gangs.

The Janesville media rarely report incidents of youth violence. A number of these unreported occurrences are gang-related, but few are treated as such. There is a concern in the community that if gang-related violence is reported, kids will become attracted to gangs and the attention they receive. Several incidents of youth violence (listed below), however, did receive media attention:

Fall 1994: A 16-year-old shot and blinded a 13-year-old with a BB gun. The shooter was sent to the Ethan Allen School in Wales.

Fall 1995: An 11-year-old Wilson Elementary School student held a lighter to a 9-year-old classmate's face, singing off his hair and eyebrows. The 11-year-old had bragged about being a member of a gang to the 9-year-old before the incident.

Fall 1995: At least 25 members of rival Asian gangs from Rockford and Chicago came to Janesville, in what police feared to be a recruiting drive. The gang members were involved in several large disturbances in the city.

Winter 1999: A 12-year-old boy driving with friends shot at his girlfriend and her friends in another car with a sawed-off shotgun. The incident was suspected to be gang related.

School counselors are able to list several additional incidents within the past year that suspected were gang related that have not received widespread attention. In the spring of 1998 a middle school boy was beaten in a gang confrontation and remains in a coma today. His younger sister is now suspected of being involved in a gang as a result of her brother's beating. At the beginning of this school year, a high school boy was severely beaten with a baseball bat that had nails sticking out of it. These events are not widely known in the community.

The Janesville community, as well as some of its leaders, may be surprised to know that several individuals who work with youth have identified at least ten established gangs in Janesville. These gangs include the Bloods, which in Janesville are mainly Hmong youth, Crips, which in Janesville are white males, Vatos Locos (female youth), Tiny Rascal Gangsters (Asian youth), Loco Boys, Black Roses (female youth), Black Disciples (African American), Gangster Disciples (active on south side of Janesville), Imperial Disciples (nicknamed the Imitation Disciples and composed of working-class whites) and Vice Lords (Hispanic and black members from Madison and Rockford.) The majority of the identified gangs are ethnically based, composed of racial groups that are in the minority in Janesville, as shown by 1990 U.S. Census population analysis.

In 1990 Janesville had a population of 52,133 citizens, of which 51,130 identified themselves as being "white." There were 287 blacks, 116 Native Americans, 429 Asians and 171 in the "other" category. We discovered that only 1.9 percent of the population of Janesville identified themselves as part of a minority ethnic group. Minorities in the Janesville community, and particularly minority youth in schools, may be naturally drawn to one another. These youth then formed into cliques which in themselves were harmless but which became targets for recruiting by established ethnic gangs from nearby cities such as Beloit, Rockford, or Chicago. Even if they are not asked to join, minority youth may still try to mimic these gangs since gang members are viewed as role models to the youth, because of the perceived power and wealth that gang members flaunt .

A heavily publicized incident of racial harassment at a high school football game in 1994 between Janesville Parker and Madison West illustrated the need for discussion about racism in Janesville. A Janesville football player yelled a racial slur at a Madison West player, causing outrage in Madison. A Madison School Board member called for the forfeiture of Janesville Parker's next football game after the incident. A number of the citizens of Janesville objected to the accusation that they were a racist community, stating that one individual could not speak for everyone. Whether or not racism simmers in Janesville, racist attitudes of a few have implications for understanding complicated issues concerning youth and gang violence.

Current Issues

In the past year, youth violence has been thrust into the national spotlight. Several highly publicized and tragic incidents of violence were not the result of gang violence, but of angry children taking out their rage on their innocent classmates and teachers. The names of small towns and cities, such as Jonesboro, Paducah, Edinboro, and Littleton are now well known to most Americans.

The outbreaks of violence in schools across the country caused sleepless nights for a number of Janesville school officials, who wondered if their schools and children were also vulnerable. These incidents brought not only national leaders together to discuss youth violence, but community leaders in Janesville as well.

Last July, the president of the Janesville United Way, the Janesville School District superintendent, and Janesville police chief came together to form a Youth Violence Task Force. They recruited community leaders from schools, business, law enforcement, and social service agencies (both nonprofit and governmental agencies) to serve on the task force. The task force focused its study on five primary issues, as identified by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno at a national United Way conference last May: reducing truancy, gun safety, after-school opportunities, drug and alcohol abuse programs, and health insurance.

In August the task force decided they would review key community data, evaluate programs that Janesville already has in each of these issue areas, and study the approaches other communities are taking to address youth violence. In January the Youth Violence Task Force split into five committees, which are based on the identified issue areas. These five committees are currently working toward the goal of writing a position paper on youth violence in Janesville, which evaluates the community's programs and views on each of the five primary youth violence issues. The Youth Violence Task Force's goal is to identify existing programs that are or have the potential to be effective in the issue areas. Another component of their goal is to create a list of all the programs that focus on youth in the Janesville community, to identify any duplicating or overlapping efforts that could be streamlined. If programs in Janesville are made more efficient and complementary, the gained savings could be reinvested in other youth programs that have been identified as being effective. The Janesville United Way plans to hire someone to work with the various agencies involved with youth to seek out and create efficiencies in their programs.

In recent months, gang activity has increased in Janesville. More fights between gangs have occurred, there have been more taggings on buildings throughout the city, and bricks have been thrown through the windows of the homes of gang members. Even with this escalation in gang activity, gang members are still perceived

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

to be "wannabes." Most youth who claim to be gang members participate only in the glamorized aspects of the gangs: wearing gang clothes and accessories, driving around in large groups, and dating members within the gang. Although they may adopt the names and mannerisms of the organized gangs, these gangs are not organized or connected to larger gangs in larger cities. According to police, they do not typically engage in drug dealing or fights with weapons. Some gang members in Janesville, however, are participating in serious fights, fights in which a group of kids attack a rival gang member who is by himself. Weapons other than a gun is used in the fight. The "wannabe" gang members do not pose a threat to those who are outside of the gangs, because the vast majority of the fights are between rival gang members. These "wannabes" however, are a threat to themselves since they are at risk of being the victim of a beating by associating with a gang.

Next Steps

A number of programs are in place in Janesville to prevent and intervene in cases of youth and gang violence. To determine what Janesville's next steps should be in the areas of prevention and intervention, it is helpful to evaluate what is already in place.

Prevention

Efforts to prevent youth and gang violence are in place in schools and in the community. They are led by educators, social service workers, and private citizens.

Schools

The middle schools in Janesville have a variety of groups that meet on a regular basis to address issues facing youths who are at risk of becoming involved in delinquent activities. These groups include an Anger Group, Friendship Group (for kids who have trouble getting along with other kids), Alcohol and Drug Abuse Group (for kids with addiction problems or kids whose parents have addictions), Transition Group (for kids entering 6th grade) and a Grieving Group. The students in these groups are identified and recommended by teachers to join particular groups. Parents must approve their children joining a group.

At the high school level, there are also groups that deal with kids and their anger problems. A group at Craig High School, which began as a "Truancy Group," has evolved into an anger management group involving 40 students. These students have not done anything wrong, but they are considered to be at-risk. Some group members, for example, are girlfriends of known gang members.

The Janesville School District developed safety plans in the past year for every school and school district building that did not already have them, to ensure that school district staff would know what to do if a public safety emergency occurred. Only when the public safety plans were in place could the community focus on proactive approaches to prevent youth violence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Janesville Police Department

The Janesville Police Department lead three youth delinquency prevention programs at the elementary and middle school levels. In kindergarten, police introduce children to basic gun safety issues. The police liaisons also administer the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) and GREAT (Gang Resistance Education and Awareness Training) programs to all middle school youth.

Several officers further prevention of gang and youth violence by discussing pertinent issues on an ad hoc basis with police officers in Beloit and Rockford. They then evaluate the extent of and approaches to the problems.

Earlier this year, the Janesville Police Department launched a neighborhood policing initiative to bring police officers closer to citizens. The goal is to develop positive relationships with neighborhood residents so that the police and community members can gain a sense of trust to work together on community issues, such as gang and youth violence.

Rock County

The identification of children who are abused or neglected is of primary importance in preventing delinquency later in life. Rock County's Department of Human Services has been criticized for letting children "fall through the cracks," by not recognizing or addressing signs of abuse and neglect early in a child's life. Instead, critics say, these children's problems are not addressed until after they commit a crime and are in the juvenile justice system. The Janesville community must ensure that Rock County receives enough resources and well-trained child protective service staff to safeguard endangered children. Other programs for children who are identified early in life as at-risk include educational child care programs and teaching parenting skills to mothers and fathers.

Community

Last summer, the Youth Violence Task Force began discussions about how to prevent youth violence. After the completion of the position paper, the task force, in conjunction with the United Way staff member who will work specifically on this issue, must maintain their commitment to identifying and streamlining effective prevention programs.

After-school programs are often seen as the most important component of youth violence and delinquency prevention programs. The peak hours for youth crime as well as teen sex, smoking, drinking alcohol, and using drugs are between 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. on weekdays. With a $5 million expansion of the existing YMCA facility in downtown Janesville, the community has a unique opportunity to revamp its after school programs with the creation of a YMCA and Boys and Girls Club teen center. A committee of youth has been created to decide what after school programs and activities will take place at the teen center.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sustained involvement of youth in programming decisions will determine the success of the after school programs. Transportation to and from the facility will also be critical to its success and on lowering juvenile crime during the peak hours. The expansion of the YMCA is also an opportunity to evaluate if there is a need for summer and weekend programs, which have also shown to be effective in preventing youth violence. These summer and weekend programs could be developed with families in mind. Such an approach could prevent delinquency, as well as encourage parental involvement in the lives of their children. The Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA hope to implement preventive programs at the new teen center as well, which would be based on programs that are run by the national Boys and Girls Club and YMCA organizations.

Education will be critical to preventing youth and gang violence. Community leaders must be connected with the people who work with youth on a daily basis, so that everyone involved in making decisions pertaining to youth issues has the information necessary to understand the full extent and complexity of youth and gang violence issues in Janesville. Community resources will only be allocated for prevention programs if citizens are educated about what level and kind of support is needed.

The effectiveness of prevention programs will hinge on the success of educating youth and those who work with at-risk youth of the availability of these programs. Advertising will be most helpful to educate teens and families of after school, weekend and summer programs.

Intervention

Once problems occur or crimes are committed, various agencies and groups can also be involved. Again, schools and government agencies and community groups can be effective, especially if they coordinate their efforts.

Schools

At the middle school level, intervention usually takes the form of one-on-one counseling. One formal program in at least one middle school is a "Lunch Bunch," a group of girls who have been in some sort of trouble. The "Lunch Bunch" allows these girls to discuss issues with their peers who are dealing with similar issues.

The Janesville School District developed alternative education settings to ensure that troubled high school youth remain in school. Janesville Parker has a curriculum program called the "Block Program," while Janesville Craig operates a "School-Within-a-School" for delinquent youth. In both of these programs, students take standard high schools courses such as English, math, and science, but in a nontraditional format. Youth violence prevention and gang awareness issues are integrated into the curriculum.

An exciting intervention program has been implemented in the school system within the last year with the creation of a Charter School. The Charter School's current enrollment is 22 students, but another 11 students are expected to join the

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

school soon. The Charter School provides students who would normally drop out of high school with an alternative to traditional education. These students receive individual attention in all classes, with an average student teacher ratio of 15 to 1. Every Tuesday and Thursday the Charter School has a "Boys Group" and "Girls Group" where students deal with social issues. The first issue being discussed by these groups is drug and alcohol abuse. It is expected that one of next year's discussion topics will be youth and gang violence.

Innovative education programs in Janesville's schools such as "School-Within-A-School," the "Block Program," and the Charter School should be expanded. These alternative education settings can be particularly effective in preventing youth from joining gangs. The students feel that they have power through more freedom of choice in these settings. Gangs usually satisfy the need of youth to feel like they "belong" to a group. These types of education alternatives can create the sense of belonging that many at-risk students.

Janesville Police Department

In the early to mid-1990s the Janesville Police Department kept brief gang profile sheets with nicknames of suspected gang members and pictures of their tattoos. The police department now has a gangs officer who is assigned to any criminal case where gang activity is suspected. This officer has received specialized training in gang investigation. The gangs officer now maintains an organized filing system that catalogues suspected and known gang members by their gang affiliation, nicknames, tattoos, tagging symbols, and gang colors.

Rock County

The Rock County juvenile court system is the first intervention point for many troubled youth whose problems are not discovered until a crime is committed. Once in the system, kids are assigned a probation officer who sets requirements for them, particularly relating to drug use and school attendance and performance, through the development of behavioral contracts. In most cases a multidisciplinary team or "M-Team" coordinates the intervention efforts in the lives of delinquent juveniles. The M-Team brings together the police liaison from the youth's school, the probation officer, parents, and school social worker to create a unified approach to addressing the problems in the youth's life.

The Rock County Human Services Department operates a program called "Youth Triage," which provides assessments specifically designed to identify the needs of children and adolescents exhibiting behavioral, mental health, and/or legal problems. "Youth Triage" not only evaluates youth who have already made contact with the juvenile court system, but assists youth who are recommended to the program by their parents.

Community

Other options include a program run by Mercy Hospital called Mercy Options, which began four years ago. Mercy Options is a mental health and addiction organization that helps people on an outpatient basis. Mercy Options administers an adolescent addiction group that meets on a regular basis. Currently the group has about five members, but has proven to be successful in ending some youths' drug dependency.

Private counseling services are available for youth in the community as well. One private practice, Genesis Consulting, has started groups for troubled and at-risk middle and high school kids to discuss issues that are important to them. Kids become members of the group because they have been ordered by the court to attend, their parents request that their children be in it, or the kids themselves ask if they can join the group after hearing about it from their friends. The groups are founded on respecting each member's views and abilities. The young people who have been involved attest that "group" has changed their lives in terms of attitude, behavior, school performance, and relationships with their families.

The list of youth violence response services, which will result from the Youth Violence Task Force, will educate agents who deal with an incident on what options are available to them. These resources will enable the community to fine-tune the services they have and refocus their efforts on prevention, diminishing the need for these reactionary resources.

Conclusion

As evidenced by the two task forces centered on youth violence, the Janesville school district, police department, and non-profit organizations already have a good working relationship. The leaders of each of these agencies have been part of the Janesville community for a number of years, making their institutional knowledge of the way the system works invaluable. These agencies' relationship with Rock County is established, particularly with juvenile justice officials, and is likely to be strengthened as youth violence services are streamlined and resources are identified. Officials from the City of Janesville, and the Janesville City Council in particular, are largely absent from the community discussion of youth violence and gangs. This may be partly a result of Janesville's administrative structure, in that the city does not have an elected mayor, but a city manager who is hired by the city council.

In a few agencies, there is the perception of a knowledge gap between administrators and their staff. Administrators who serve on committees and staff who work with youth and see the reality of problems of youth violence and especially gangs must communicate more effectively and frequently. This is particularly true in the area of gang violence, where some administrators and community leaders do not believe there is a gang problem or presence in Janesville, while staff who deal with youth on a daily basis have seen firsthand evidence of several established gangs. Some private citizens who were members of Youth Issues and Gangs Task Force also believe there are no established gangs in Janesville.

Janesville may also want to consider strengthening its relationships with other communities in the area of youth and gang violence. The City of Beloit would be a natural choice, given the perception among many Janesville citizens that the serious youth violence problems Beloit is facing currently could be Janesville's problems in the future. The Janesville and Beloit school districts have an established and positive working relationship, which could be expanded to the issue of youth violence.

Many agencies know what their next steps should and will be to address youth and gang violence in Janesville, but have not made these next steps a high priority in their organizations. The scarcest resource in Janesville may be time rather than dollars. While Janesville's agencies may not have time to concentrate on youth and gang violence issues currently, they must ensure that their strong working relationships continue and communication lines remain open to promote a continuous, evolving dialogue as these issues change over time. By building on its existing relationships between agencies and with other communities, Janesville will further its goals of preventing youth and gang violence in Janesville.

Janesville has the building blocks of an effective community approach to preventing youth violence in place. Their plans need to be cemented with a focus on the specialized issues involved in preventing the formation of gangs. When specific gang and broad youth violence programs are joined, Janesville will be a strong and unified force in protecting the lives of children.