VUSD combats gang activity with student activities

Visalia Unified School District assembles community leaders for gang prevention discussions planned in advance but held just two weeks after massacre in Goshen

VISALIA – Less than two weeks after a Goshen family was executed in what is believed to be a gang-related shooting, community leaders and local families gathered to discuss how to curb rising gang activity in Visalia.

This collaborative effort came together at a meeting organized by the Visalia Unified School District at Riverway Elementary School on Jan. 26. Just two weeks earlier, the Goshen “massacre” left six people dead, including a 16-year-old teenager and her 10-month-old child, in a Jan. 16 shooting. The Tulare County Sheriff’s Department said it believes the crime is gang-related due to the nature of the murders, which have been described as “cartel-style executions” by Sheriff Mike Boudreaux.

“When something like that happens in any community, we [all] become very vigilant of what happened,” Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar said. “We try to make sure we’re on top of it and that hopefully we can either prevent [these situations], or if we need to intervene, we’re ready to do that.”

Despite the recent incident, Salazar confirmed in an interview with The Sun Gazette that, overall, there has not been a significant increase in gang activity within the city of Visalia. Since 2007, when the issue was of a higher concern, he said gang violence has gone down by approximately 61%. Nevertheless, with students exhibiting recent signs of behavioral issues coming back into the school setting, he said it’s better for the community to stay involved with its students.

“It’s always good to have dialogue with your community about those things, because you don’t want to wait until it’s too late and we’re experiencing 2007 again,” Salazar said. “It really takes everyone in our community to come together to do what we can for our kids, to keep them out of trouble and keep them safe.”

At the meeting, over a hundred community members and families listened to remarks from community leaders, including Chief Salazar, and discussed a multitude of concerns on local gang activity amongst themselves. VUSD coordinator of student services Frank Escobar said the conference’s overall purpose was for residents to further delve into their potential contributions to this area of need.

“We were excited to see the number of people that came,” Escobar said. “They engaged in discussion and have expressed interest in supporting various needs for our young people in the community going forward.”

According to Escobar, the district has been trying to organize an event like this since the summertime, well before the Goshen shooting. Similar to Salazar’s statements, Escobar said students missing out on a decent amount of school time during the pandemic and readjusting to campus life has led to some behavioral complications. With those observations, he said the district wants to ensure that students aren’t venturing down negative paths, including any gang-related activities.

“There are lots of young people out there that could use more support, especially coming back from the pandemic,” Escobar said. “We thought it’d be a great idea to bring folks together all under one roof at one time, and allow them to connect and share.”

All meeting participants, individuals and organizations alike, were encouraged to connect on the various ways they could come together in their efforts for community support, regardless of their respective roles. They also discussed their visions for the community and their missions on how they could address potential gang activity amongst the city’s youth groups.

According to the district’s administrator for communications, strategy and outreach Andre Pecina, VUSD wants to provide any at-risk students with alternatives that are tailored to their individual needs and wants. In his examples on those alternatives, he said the district would aim to supply young, aspiring artists with the skillsets they need to be successful, and supply any students interested in journalistic type careers with the tools they need to engage with that industry.

“If you have some kids that are involved or have a higher chance of being involved in a gang, we want to make sure that we provide something that doesn’t allow for that to happen,” Pecina said in an interview with The Sun Gazette.

On the initial reasoning behind this collaboration, Pecina said it came about as a way to get residents further connected on overall issues and address them in a more collaborative form. Through VUSD’s overall engagement with Visalia communities, Pecina said the district discovered a certain lack of connection amongst the neighborhood. Through those observations, they decided to conduct some community outreach, especially with the recent concerns on gang-related activity.

“There’s a lot of great things happening in Visalia, but they’re not all connected,” Pecina said. “There’s some duplication of work, there’s some organizations covering half of a need but not the whole thing.”

At the meeting, opening remarks were given by VUSD superintendent Kirk Shrum, Chief Salazar and Eddie Valero, Tulare County supervisor for district 4. In their speeches, each speaker addressed the need for Visalia communities to work together in combating this issue.

“The school district alone cannot stop gang activity,” Shrum said in his remark. “We must work together, as a community, to empower families and students to make the right choices.”

Chief Salazar, in his remarks, provided some context on previous efforts in Visalia to prevent gang-related activity. He shared the community’s involvement in gang prevention that began in the early 1990s with the creation of the Visalians for a Gang Free Community (VGFC). With this collaborative effort, the VGFC developed ProYouth to provide after school activities for students to ensure they had positive alternatives. Over the course of a ten-year period, gang activity declined.

According to information referenced by all speakers, around the time of the mid 2000’s, Visalia experienced an increase in gang activity. This prompted a second method of community collaboration. A task force with the Visalia Police Department sought to identify new solutions to decrease gang activity. Through this task force, new policies were developed along with continuous positive alternatives, which brought about a decrease in gang activity leading into the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the pandemic, gang activity decreased to historic lows. This low was attributed to the pandemic’s community isolation measures. However, as the community began to open up once more, a rise in gang activity followed suit. Although gang activity has not reached the levels they were at pre-pandemic, community leaders are still taking a proactive approach on the matter.

According to the CDC, students are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as violence and substance use, if they have a solid connection with their school. Connected students are more likely to do better in school and engage in positive health behaviors, such as physical activity and healthy eating.

Through the One Visalia Connected initiative, the VUSD board of education declared the need to develop a systematic framework ensuring each student has access to meaningful activities outside of the school setting. Additionally, the framework should allow students access to mentorships. 

Superintendent Shrum has made One Visalia Connected a top priority for Visaila students. In the district’s goal to better connect students with their community, the district has held several roundtable assemblies for initiative discussion. The district convenes leaders from a variety of industries to be thought partners in the design and implementation of the initiative’s framework. 

The One Visalia Connected initiative’s overall goal is to encourage more community involvement amongst kids of all ages, leading to improved academic performance, improved social and emotional health as well as better community engagement. 

Start typing and press Enter to search