The San Luis Obispo County Child Abuse Prevention Council held a public forum March 11 on gang violence in California and locally as part of a county public awareness campaign.

Deputy probation officer Pedro Inzunza Arroyo, coordinator of the Youth in Action Gang Prevention Program, presented what he and other law enforcement agencies, lawmakers and educational service departments are doing to redirect at-risk youth in San Luis Obispo County.

“Mainly we want to bring awareness to the community, educate the public on ways to mobilize the area and present options for those people who might choose to mentor a young person … or contribute with resources to help prevent youth from going in the wrong direction,” Arroyo said.

Among the crowd of 65 were educators, county service agency representatives, sheriff candidates and a representative from the District Attorney’s office.

The forum painted a picture of national statistics and current gang activity in San Luis Obispo County.

According to Arroyo, gangs are formed with three or more members who are usually between ages 12 and 25 and who generally share an identity like a symbol or hand sign, color and name. The gang is almost always involved in criminal activity from vandalism to petty theft, grand theft or even intimidation, Arroyo said.

Local gangs are mainly in the northern and southern areas of San Luis Obispo County. Paso Robles, Oceano and Nipomo see the heaviest concentration of gang activity in close proximity to San Luis Obispo, Arroyo said.

“Luckily, we don’t even closely compare to Salinas or Santa Barbara county,” Arroyo said. “San Luis Obispo is very fortunate with little gang presence, but things can change.”

A former president of California State University Dominguez Hills,  history professor Robert Detweiler worked and lived in heavy gang-concentrated areas like South Los Angeles before moving to the Central Coast.

“San Luis Obispo is the cadillac of society in the CSU,” Detweiler said. “Not to say everyone at Cal Poly or in San Luis Obispo are goodie-two-shoes, but San Luis Obispo is atypical of most California cities in that gangs are comparatively unimportant. Of the CSU campuses I’ve worked at, Cal Poly is the peroquial one, very isolated.”

Detweiler said Cal State Hills is in the heart of a very complex gang subculture.

“We have a lot of younger kids who just immigrated to San Luis Obispo County, and they are associating with folks who are associated with gangs,” Arroyo said. “We have a lot of families that are first-generation immigrants, a lot of Latinos who are trying to settle into the culture.”

According to the National Gang Center, funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance in 2003, a gang subculture stems from the poor function of “core social institutions.”

Some audience members said they had noticed a trend of finding gang-associated clothing and writing in some of the youth they mentor and interact with. Arroyo said some of these at-risk kids develop anti-establishment, anti-authority attitudes from peers. When they are confronted by authorities, they often lie, deny accusations or say others are trying to target their individuality.

“Functioning as an advocate for these kids, often delinquents in general, is so important, especially when they are impressionable,” Arroyo said.

Arroyo explained a three-step strategy for improving gang violence in San Luis Obispo County: prevention, detection and re-entry (or rehabilitation).

It’s crucial criminal offenders find positive socialization, especially young offenders, Arroyo said.

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