WEST VALLEY CITY - Utah's second-largest city wants to take on rising gang violence one teenager at a time.
The proposed remedy: Step in before kids join up.
To help with that intervention, West Valley City commissioned the University of Utah's College of Social Work to survey students at four junior highs and two high schools in the city about why kids opt for gangs and what they do once they join.
"Kids join gangs because they want to belong to something. It's almost always linked to school failure," said U. professor Russell Van Vleet. "Kids who succeed in school avoid delinquency."
By age 12, an increasing number of youths feel pressured to join gangs as they search for acceptance. But with gang membership comes a marked increase in at-risk behavior, such as drug and alcohol use and acts of violence.
"The vast majority of kids who are locked up are not criminal," Van Vleet said. "They just wanted to be a part of something."
Of the 368 students who participated in the West Valley City survey, 47 reported belonging to a gang at some point.
The survey noted several key factors that entice young people to gang life, including family conflicts, frequent relocations, missing support systems and anti-social attitudes among peers and family members.
Police Detective Bruce Champagne confirmed that gang membership is on the rise in West Valley City, especially among girls, and that recruitment ramps up in junior high.
The city's 16-member Comprehensive Gang Model Steering Committee - which includes representatives from Granite School District, the Police Department and other agencies - will use the survey's results to develop an early-intervention plan aimed at remedying the root causes of gang activity.
"We have in our hands the voice of our kids," said Sid Casillas, steering committee chairman. "We can either hear it or ignore it."
Casillas, who works full time for the Valley Assembly of God, believes community activists, agencies and residents can help curtail gang activity by setting aside their differences and banding together.
"We are the land of the free, but within that land is an ongoing struggle for money and power," Casillas said. "Juveniles were the ones to lose out because none of us wanted to work together. This day represents that we were wrong. We need each other and need to work together toward a common goal."
DeAnn Dimond, at-risk coordinator for Granite School District, expressed optimism about the city's renewed efforts to combat gangs.
"This will be a good committee - it will have good outcomes," Dimond said. "There definitely is a gang problem, which increased last year after several years of status quo. We need community involvement to solve it."
Both Van Vleet and U. research analyst Audrey Hickert emphasized that the survey, conducted during the 2003-04 school year, had limitations. Students participated voluntarily and were required to get parental permission to do so.
However, many of the findings in the U.'s survey - funded by a $2,500 state grant - have been validated nationwide in previous studies, Van Vleet said.
West Valley City's steering committee will huddle in June to begin devising an intervention plan, which will likely include more mentoring, parental involvement, job training and other programs to help at-risk youths.
"This is where we make an impact if we're going to make one," Champagne said.
Analysis of the West Valley City survey results are expected to be available online at http://www.justice.utah.gov by week's end.