By Doug Dowie
Sometimes the answer to your most vexing problem is sitting right in front you.
There is no question that L.A. has been plagued by gang violence for decades. And the debate over how to deal with the question has lasted just as long.
Tough enforcement is obviously part of the solution. Some experts believe “intervention” — getting gang members to quit the life, or at least convincing them not to shoot each other — will also reduce the violence, which, tragically, often claims innocent lives. Sometimes kids playing in their living rooms. Sometimes babies. Sometimes people just waiting for a bus.
Most recently, the debate in L.A. was marred by a fight over who in City Hall would control the millions of dollars to actually prevent kids from joining gangs. No bystanders on Spring Street were killed, but it got pretty nasty
Soon the fight will begin — again — over which of the myriad of gang prevention programs will get their piece of the pie. Evaluating their effectiveness is always an issue, especially when some of the programs are run by, or employ, former gang members. It gets dicier when it’s revealed that some aren’t really “former.”
But like I said, sometimes a big part of the solution is sitting there looking at you.
Last fall, LA’s BEST announced the results of a landmark study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice and conducted by UCLA’s National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing.
The results show that students in LA’s BEST are 30 percent less likely to commit juvenile crime than their peers. Using conservative estimates, the study also found that for every dollar invested in the LA’s BEST program, the city saves $2.50 in costs associated with crime.
Remember reading or hearing about this important study? Probably not. It got virtually no attention.
Created 20 years ago by Mayor Tom Bradley, LA’s BEST, serving more than 26,000 children at 180 elementary schools, is recognized as the preeminent after-school enrichment program in the city, if not the nation. It keeps a lot of kids off the streets after school and out of trouble.
I’ve been involved with LA’s BEST for more than 10 years. I served on the board and recruited other board members, my former company provided financial and pro bono PR support and I continue to provide my advice to its dedicated, talented, incredibly hard working communications staff.
I’ve worked in and around L.A. media for 30 years. I’ve written stories, edited stories, killed stories, hyped stories, placed stories, spun stories, ignored stories and been the subject of stories. But I couldn’t help them get that damn story in the paper. I’m still not sure why. There was plenty of good advance work. LA’s BEST President Carla Sanger announced the results at a news conference with the mayor. Reporters were there. They just decided it didn’t deserve space on a page or airtime.
It’s been bugging me ever since. It was a good story!
So when my old pal Ron asked me to guest blog while he was out of town, I wanted to do what I could to get the word out that this programs works. There is no debate.
The study was the first in the nation to include enough data, students and background information to support valid and viable academic research. It examined 10 years of data and used a sample of more than 6,000 students from LA public schools. It also focused on the level of the children’s attendance and participation in the program, rather than simply enrollment.
In March, Priscilla Little of the Harvard Family Research Project gave testimony before the House Committee on Education and Labor and the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, where she called the study “powerful evidence of the potential long-term effects of and benefits to society from after school programs.”
Need more proof? You can read get the entire study here for yourself.
I had lunch with Carla this week at a pizza joint down the street from City Hall. She was very excited. Actually, she’s always very excited. But this weekend is LA Best’s annual fundraising brunch and they’re celebrating the organization’s 20th birthday. They’re bringing in $800,000 — a couple of hundred thousand dollars short of their goal — but impressive nevertheless.
Then she shared that LA’s BEST is still short about $4 million this year.
“The board looked at it rationally and we discussed cutting back,” she said. “But then perhaps my most conservative board member stood up said that he’d been with LA’s BEST for 20 years and we’ve never closed a school and we’re not going to do it now.”
“We’ll raise the money,” Carla said. “The work is just too important.”
I just hope the people who run this city remember that sometimes the best solution is right there – maybe in a Second Street pizza joint – looking you right in the eye.
(Doug Dowie is the former managing editor of Daily News, L.A. Bureau Chief for the United Press International wire service, chief of staff to then Assemblyman Richard Katz and head of the Fleishman-Hillard public relations office in L.A. His appeal of a wire fraud conviction involving Department of Water and Power billing is pending in federal court.)