by Stephen Baxter, Santa Cruz Sentinel
LIVE OAK -- Ninth-graders in Santa Cruz County feel safer in school, are less likely to have been suspended and are less likely to be involved in gangs than a few years ago, a recent state study suggests.
For many participants at a youth violence prevention summit at Simpkins Family Swim Center on Wednesday, those trends were a good start -- but more work needs to be done. The Santa Cruz County Criminal Justice Council called the meeting, which included more than 150 police, youths and leaders from schools, government and nonprofits.
The goal was to connect leaders working toward a common goal of reducing youth violence, and pick some indicators to track progress in coming years.
"Crime is going down and kids are feeling safe, but our numbers are still higher than the state average," said Abigail Stevens, who compiled the information for Applied Survey Research in Watsonville.
Participants were shown some data from a California Healthy Kids Survey, which was compiled by the California Department of Education. The data was from 2010 and 2011 and released a few months ago.
In the survey, 17 percent of Santa Cruz County ninth-graders surveyed said they had been in a fight, which was higher than the state average of 10 percent.
Six percent of the ninth-graders surveyed said they had carried a gun, compared with 5 percent of students statewide. About 10 percent of ninth-graders said they were involved with a gang, which was down from the 2009-10 survey.
Participants said they were interested in tracking some of those numbers -- but they also wanted to follow the number of gang dropouts, the high school graduation rate and how many juvenile offenders who become adult offenders.
Leaders also asked for a common definition of "gang-motivated" and "gang-related" crime across law enforcement agencies in the county.
Megan Joseph, director of community organizing for United Way of Santa Cruz County, said she hoped goals would channel participants' energy into a common direction.
"This is an opportunity to reinvent the future of our youth," Joseph said.
The meeting also included some teens who had seen gangs firsthand in the county.
Jose Xilonzochilt, a 16-year-old junior at Costanoa High School in Santa Cruz, told the group that he fell into a gang in the Beach Flats neighborhood where he grew up.
Both his parents work, and he hung out at a park where older teens and men often got in fights with outsiders to defend their turf. He said he started selling marijuana and got protection from a gang.
Eventually, he was wrapped up in an attempted homicide for which he and his younger brother served time in Juvenile Hall. Since then, Xilonzochilt said he found a new path by concentrating on school and a passion for soccer. Now clear of the gang and embracing soccer, he said his goal is to be a professional player.
"For me it's soccer, but for other kids it can be art or any other career," he said.
Dane Cervine, chief of children's mental health services for the county's mental health and substance abuse division, said he hoped more teens in the county would find constructive interests.
"The youth are turned on most when they find that pathway -- that thing they love the most," he said.