On a recent school day, a group of fifth-graders at Maryland Elementary School in Vista performed a short skit about resisting gangs. Three boys played the role of gangsters and invited some girls into their gang.

The girls did the right thing by saying no and walking away. The boys called out after the girls asking “why?” One girl answered she didn’t want to get arrested; another added she didn’t want to ruin her future.

Sheriff's Deputy Mike Astorga teaches kids to resist gangs and also works on the Sheriff’s Gang Enforcement Team. Photo via County News Center
Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Astorga teaches kids to resist gangs also works on the Sheriff’s Gang Enforcement Team. Photo via County News Center

The presentation was one of several by students at a ceremony to mark the completion of 13 weeks of Gang Resistance and Education Training, also known as G.R.E.A.T.

Ninety-six Maryland students walked on stage and received certificates, a medal and T-shirts. After the ceremony attended by Vista Mayor Judy Ritter, the kids ate cake.

Deniah Tanner, 11, summed up part of her learning.

“Gangs, you really have to stay out of them,” she said. “You can go to prison. And if you try to get out of a gang, you can get killed.”

The program is being taught by sheriff’s deputies and probation officers to fourth- and fifth-grade students at three Vista elementary schools this year, said Kathy Valdez, community outreach program manager for the city of Vista.  Since the city and school district started the grant-funded program in 2008, 4,291 students have taken part in the curriculum, she said.

“This program does help, in my opinion. The program isn’t anything more than life skills: communicating, solving problems, positive outcomes, not using drugs, staying away from violence and of course gangs,” said Deputy Mike Astorga, who teaches the curriculum and also works on the Sheriff’s Gang Enforcement Team.

The law enforcement instructors all receive special training and teach students once a week. Fourth-graders get a six-week curriculum and fifth-graders get 13 weeks.

Building Rapport
Astorga said a big part of the program is about building trust between students and law enforcement. In a recent classroom session, he told a class of Grapevine Elementary students he grew up in Vista just down the street and attended their school.

He starts every program by showing his gear: the bulletproof vest, ammunition, baton, stun gun, pepper spray, knife, and service revolver he keeps holstered on his hip.

He tells students they must never reach for his gun. If he doesn’t get that presentation out of the way first, he said, the kids will never stop asking him questions about his equipment while he’s trying to teach the curriculum.

One Grapevine student asked Astorga if it’s fun being a cop; he answered yes. Another asked if he’s ever killed anyone. He said once, to protect himself, and it was the worst day of his life. Killing someone is not like it is in video games, he said.

Through these sessions, the kids get to know Astorga. They’re happy to know a deputy, and give him high-fives when they pass him on campus. The overall goal is for students to feel comfortable enough to go to law enforcement or another trusted adult with a problem.

The curriculum covers topics such as how to tell the difference between a group or club and a gang, the difference between tattling and telling, the relationship between crime, violence, drug abuse, and gangs, setting goals, anger management, showing empathy for others and how to say no effectively.

Starting Young

A December 2013 SANDAG report on San Diego County gangs noted that prevention efforts that focus on youth are key to deterring kids from joining gangs.

Fourth and fifth grade may seem too young to talk to kids about gangs, but the report showed that 13.5 years is the average age that most kids join gangs. Those interviewed for the report said the top reason for joining a gang was because their friends were associated with one.

Probation Supervisor Jason Rasch, who oversees some of the probation officers assigned to G.R.E.A.T., said law enforcement in Vista adjusted the program, which was originally designed for fifth- and sixth-graders, because everyone involved felt it needed to be taught earlier.

“The younger the better obviously, especially to those who are already exposed to gangs at home,” said Rasch.

Two-thirds of those interviewed on why they joined gangs for the SANDAG report noted they  had family members in gangs.

Deputy Astorga said he sometimes recognizes the parents of kids in the program as gang members or associates. There have even been a few times when he has gone to some of the kids’ homes on a probation check for a family member and he and a student in the home recognize each other.

In that situation, Astorga said it actually helps those students who know him, because otherwise his visit could seem scary. Astorga said he never mentions any family gang ties to the child at school or treats a child differently because of them.

Program coordinator Valdez notes that this program is only part of the city’s gang prevention efforts. The grant which funds the program is also used for gang suppression efforts and outreach to siblings of gang members on probation.

—County News Center