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Gang Prevention Program Helps At-Risk Students



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OGDEN, Utah (AP) -- When Ben Lomond High School sophomore Julia became pregnant, she decided to change her life.

She was a member of a tough crowd, who smoked, drank alcohol and occasionally brawled with other teen girls. She was active in the Southside 18th Street gang, but wanted a better life for her baby.

Julia sought out Colors of Success, a gang intervention and prevention program for students in kindergarten through grade 12. The program operates in Ogden and Salt Lake City schools. Julia's real name was not used for this article because of concern for her safety.

"My life is gonna change, and this (gang association) is not the best thing for me and my family," Julia said.

The program, which started 17 years ago, helps at-risk students steer clear of gang involvement, said Shara Gooda, senior site coordinator of Colors in Ogden. The sole Colors counselor at Ben Lomond High said the school needs more help.

With as many as 100 gang members at the school, a fight breaks out almost every week. It is Goodas responsibility, along with the on-site police officer, to break them up.

"With the amount of gang violence this school has, everyone here is at risk," Gooda said.

The predominant gangs at Ben Lomond and Ogden high schools are the Southside 18th Street, Westside 24th Street, Nortenos and Ogden Trece. The latter three are allies against the Southsiders, Gooda said.

These gang members will do anything to be recognized within their gang or by rival gangs, said Sgt. Kevin Cottrell of the Ogden Metro Gang Unit.

"They're all about respect, reputation, rivalry and retaliation," he said. "If gangs had a motto, it would be, Never let an insult go unanswered."

Dee and Gramercy elementary schools participate in Colors as a preventative program, said Paola Uribe, Ogden case manager for Colors at the two schools.

"Now is the time to prevent them from going that way. Now is the time to build their character and steer them away from that lifestyle."

Uribe became involved with Colors in high school after she watched her gang member friends become pregnant, experiment with drugs and often end up in juvenile detention.

Colors helped her change her life, she said.

"A lot of students benefit from this," Uribe said. "It definitely opened many doors for me."

Now, working as a Colors counselor, Uribe said, she is "paying it forward."

"Because I used to get into trouble when I was younger, I know where these kids are coming from," she said. "I want to see them get through school and do some good."

Students usually show signs of gang interest in grade school, Uribe said, by flashing gang signs at other students, talking about gangs, wearing gang colors and getting into fights at recess.

Kids join gangs for a sense of belonging, acceptance, respect, identity and love, Cottrell said, which they don't get at home.

"Right now, it is important for someone to be there for them," Uribe said.

Junior high is when the majority of students become personally involved in gangs, she said, and the involvement escalates in high school.

A screen team, made up of school counselors and principals, discuss which students may need Colors, Gooda said.

When identified and placed in the program some voluntarily and others involuntarily the students receive one-on-one counseling and group discussion with the schools Colors counselor and other Colors students.

Counselors make house calls regularly to discuss students progress and problems with parents. Quarterly, parents are invited to schools for "family night," dinner with their students and Colors representatives.

"It is crucial to have a good relationship with their parents and family," Uribe said.

When serious problems occur, Uribe may team up with the principal for one-on-one intervention.

"If a kid says to me, Hey my brother got shot, Ill bring him into my office immediately and talk about what he is feeling," Uribe said. "Ill ask him if thats the kind of life he wants and well discuss his options."

Born in Mexico, Julia came to the U.S. with her family as an illegal alien, she said. In seventh grade, she began associating with "Mexican girls" and labeled a Southsider.

Since then, she began fighting with rival gang members in and out of school, she said, "throwing up Southside" and sporting her gang colors of dark blue and black.

"It was a way of life," she said. "They're my family and its hard, ya know, because every day you wonder if you're going to see them again."

She watched in middle school as "her girls" began having babies with older gang members.

When she became pregnant, she decided to change her life, but is uncertain about her baby's future.

"Sometimes I get scared," she said. "I have a friend who lost her baby because a rival gangster jumped her and she couldn't defend herself. They don't care. They see you as a Southsider and think that you need to go down, no matter what."

Colors works closely with the Ogden Metro Gang Unit.

"We want these kids to know that they can trust police officers, that they're not all crooked like they think," Gooda said.

As a mediator between the student and family, Gooda said, it is important to have an open-door policy. The staff is on call around the clock to help students.

"They know they can come and talk whenever they have a problem," she said. "Its important that they know that Im always here for them."

Most of Goodas 25 students at Ben Lomond High have a strong desire to turn their lives around, but become easily discouraged because they've already been labeled as "gang bangers."

She is constantly reminding them of their potential and the possibilities they have to make a life for themselves, she said.

"I wont let these guys give up," Gooda said. "I wont let them fail."

It's not easy to get away from a gang, Cottrell said. Students have to stop dressing like gang members and cease all association.

Many end up moving out of the state.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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