First Line of Defense Against Gangs -- Parenting

First Line of Defense Against Gangs -- Parenting

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Pictured above: Case manager Ge Thao-Lor, parent Maria Velazquez and case manager Martha Hansen-Newton.

CHICO, Calif. -- Ge Thao-Lor remembers growing up without television Monday through Thursday every week. Her mother squirreled away the family's 13-inch TV, hiding it in a closet, where it stayed until Friday.

On weekends, Thao-Lor and her 10 siblings were allowed to take television breaks from homework and housework.

Now, as a parent herself, Thao-Lor knows how difficult the job has become. Children carry cell phones from which they call friends, e-mail photos, text messages, and access Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the entire Internet. They may struggle academically or face pressure to join gangs or cope with family dysfunction.

As a case manager at McManus Elementary School in Chico, Thao-Lor also serves as a parent guide. On March 26, she will begin a six-week session from the Parents on a Mission (POM) curriculum in Hmong. She taught the same workshop series last fall after Chico Unified School District adopted the curriculum for parenting workshops and began presenting it in English, Spanish and Hmong.

The curriculum is based on the book, "Gang Prevention and Schools," by Bakersfield writer and lecturer Richard Ramos, and emphasizes the importance of strong leadership on the part of parents in gang prevention.

"The first line of defense is in the home," said Ramos in a telephone interview. "If children are happy and nurtured, especially in the first 12 years, there's a very good chance that they're not going to join a gang."

Chico Unified is the first school district to adopt the Parents on a Mission (POM) curriculum for internal use. It is also the first organization to present the material orally in Hmong, Ramos said. (Ramos's Parent Action Guide, published in 2011, was printed in both English and Spanish.)

In Kern County, the school district has worked with Ramos to encourage the curriculum's use by youth mentor groups and counselors. The POM curriculum has also been used by community-based organizations in Florida, Texas and in two Canadian provinces.

Chico Unified's family literacy coordinator Shari Zeno stumbled upon POM while conducting an Internet search a couple of years ago. Zeno was looking for a curriculum that could help parents support their children academically and keep them away from gangs, drugs and alcohol.

"I think what's different about Richard's program," Zeno said, "is that it works from inside out. It's about parents doing their own self-growth, instead of just looking at what's wrong with their child and the child's behavior."

Chico's Maria Velazquez said the workshop series dramatically changed her parenting style. As a mother of four children, she has faced a series of challenges; she has seen her oldest son through cancer treatment and had to take a part-time job after her husband was injured at work. "I'm more patient, more calm," Velazquez said. "Before, I got mad."

Velazquez makes sure she has frequent contact with her children, chauffeuring them to activities and watching soccer games, if only for a few minutes.

The POM curriculum emphasizes personal growth, distinguishes between discipline and punishment, recommends adoption of a family mission statement and traditions, and discusses the passing down of family stories. Ramos believes that during a child's first 12 years, parents have a window of opportunity to build a bond of trust and loyalty. After age 12, they face fierce competition for influence over their children.

"The authority of parents seems to be eroding more and more and more," Ramos said. "As a parent, you're in competition, and if you don't understand that, you're not even in the game."

The competition comes from what Ramos calls the "4 Ms" — music, media, movies and magazines.

Chico Junior High School Principal Pedro Caldera said the majority of students he sees being pulled into gangs are Latino. But across the spectrum of ethnicity, he sees people struggling with the job of 21st century parenting.

"All of a sudden," Caldera said, "We're having parents saying, 'We need help.' They're coming in and saying, 'I want to be able to communicate because I see all these things happening.'"

Ramos acknowledged that children of immigrants are particularly vulnerable to gang recruitment. "We came here because we thought it was better, and in a lot of ways it is," said Ramos, whose mother is a Mexican immigrant. "But in terms of the violent culture, it's not."

Ramos said immigrant parents often don't understand the pressure their children face in American culture; he acknowledges that gangs are sown by poverty and racism. Said Ramos: "Gangs are a symptom of larger social problems. What we can do is prevent individual children from joining them."

Thao-Lor said, though, that convincing Hmong parents to participate in the workshop series has been difficult. For Hmong men, one of the biggest cultural shocks in coming to America may be the expectation that they take an active role in family life and child-rearing, she said. And Hmong women may not be accustomed to discussing family life outside their home.

"This is new," Thao-Lor said of the workshops. "It takes a lot for a Hmong woman to raise her hand and say, 'I need help.' We're saying, 'We're here for you.' Little by little it's getting better."

Thao-Lor said there are almost 40 Hmong families with children at McManus, and predicted that at most, 15 will attend the workshops.

Zeno said about 40 Spanish-speaking, 30 English-speaking, and five Hmong-speaking parents have so far completed the workshops.

Zeno and the 10 case managers in Chico Unified hope that more parents become involved as word spreads, and have billed the sessions as helpful for all kinds of delinquency prevention. Earlier this year, Ramos spoke in Chico and the school district had the presentation translated into Spanish and Hmong on closed-circuit television sets.

Ramos developed the curriculum in part out of his own experience growing up in a broken home in "gang-infested" northeast Los Angeles. He developed it in part out of experience later working with gang members and their parents. He now runs a non-profit, the Latino Coalition for Faith & Community Leadership, and separately, a business offering community leaders training in the POM curriculum.

His emphasis on parenting hasn't always helped grow his fan base. "It's a very unconventional approach," he said. "I'm not always popular when I speak at conferences."

In an interview with ChicoSol, Ramos dismissed the "It takes a village to raise a child" axiom as no longer culturally relevant. "It takes parents to raise a child. That's a good saying, but it was meant for a different time and a different culture," he said.

Ramos agrees that communities can be of assistance by providing schools, programs and parks. But gangs won't be eliminated by social programs or law enforcement, he said.

"Most communities say they're doing gang prevention, but what they're really doing is intervention," Ramos said. "We don't want community control, we want community help. The community at large has a role in assistance."

Leslie Layton is a freelance writer who publishes ChicoSol. Contact her at chicosol@sbcglobal.net