This past Saturday morning, April 16, in a lecture room at the University of California, Irvine, a UCI student, whom we’ll call Luis,* spoke to 46 teenagers about how, as a 14-year-old living in Compton, he and his cousin, who was also 14 at the time, were sitting, kicking it outside his uncle’s house—also in Compton—when everything changed.
“Two Lincoln Navigators drove really slowly up to my uncle’s house,” said Luis, who is member of the university’s Sigma Delta Alpha fraternity. “And we saw the gun come out. It was an Uzi. And they started shooting. I dropped down to the ground. But then I saw that my cousin didn’t duck. He was choking with blood.”
Most of the teenagers in the audience had never been on a college campus, and they listened to Luis’s story with nearly breathless intensity. Ranging in age from 12 to 18, they were part of a Gang Diversion Team program (GDT) that was started ten years ago by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputy, Fred Noya, out of the department’s Carson station.
On Saturday, Noya’s GDT kids had come to UC Irvine for an all day event that was designed to persuade the group of young men and women of the worth and joys of college, along with giving them the message that, if they wanted to go to a really good school like UCI, or other highly rated colleges and universities, if they were willing to work toward that goal, such a school was within their reach.
One of the first events of the day was the morning session featuring talks by several motivational speakers. And far and away the most popular of the presentations was the talk given the group by Luis.
DON’T BE A STATISTIC
As the kids watched fraternity guy speak, Noya watched his GDT charges whom he noted were “glued” as Luis continued his story.
Luis said that four bullets hit his cousin on that awful day-–”three in the stomach, one on the side.” Luis paused. “I saw him die in front of me….A kid shouldn’t have to do that. It changes you. It traumatizes you.”
Although he didn’t realize it right away, Luis had also been hit. A bullet grazed the side of his head just above his ear. Luis parted his hair with his fingers to reveal a still very visible scar.
“I usually don’t show this to people,” he said.
Luis went on to tell his young audience that, right after his cousin’s death, he stopped going to school, and began spending time on the street.
“I was blindfolded by rage and anger,” he said. “I stopped going to school for about three months.” All he could think about, he said, was retaliating for his cousin’s murder.
“It was a dark time.”
For a teenager in his painful state, Luis said, “you need someone who gives you hope.”
Over the next few years, Luis said he was “living two lives,” one of them in school, one on the street. Yet, despite his increasingly problematic behavior away from school, some of his teachers didn’t give up on him. In particular there was a physics teacher who was “extraordinary,” he said. She made it clear she thought he was someone who mattered by driving to at his house when he didn’t show up at school. The physics teacher did whatever else it took to get the boy out of the emotional spiral that had taken possession of him after his cousin’s murder.
At home, Luis said, he “didn’t have any guidance.” His parents worked very long hours and were exhausted during the show time they were at home. His dad had been deported twice. No one was pushing him to stay in school or helping him stay out of trouble.
“So having someone believe in me,” said Luis, made the crucial difference. He gradually reengaged in classes. And, with the help of the physics teacher, he applied to college.
By his senior year in high school, Luis had managed a near miraculous turnaround, a 4.7 GPA, plus he was class salutatorian at graduation. Even better, he got a full ride to UCI where he is now majoring in business economics. He plans to go on to graduate school and wants a career in finance.
“Don’t be a statistic,” said Luis to the kids in the audience, near the end of his story. “Anyone can change. It’s a lot of work. I worked really hard. But you can do it.”
When you come from Compton, Luis added, all you hear about is “famous rappers and basketball players.”
Since the kids in the audience came primarily from Compton, Lynwood and Carson, many of them nodded. What about the doctors and lawyers? What about the rest of the professions? Luis asked. “Don’t listen to the stereotypes,” he said.
For the rest of the time on the Irvine campus, the GDT kids toured the school with student volunteers who acted as guides and mentors for the day, telling stories from their own lives, and answering questions.
At lunch, when the GDT youth were asked to give feedback about which of the day’s speakers and activities had most affected or inspired them, the response was unanimous. The story of Luis was easily the winner.
“With all he had going against him and nobody always pulling for him, he kept at it,” said one UCI visitor. “I want to be like that.”
Luis had made college seem possible, they said. “He’s one of us.”
MORE THAN SUPRESSION
Ten years ago when GDT began, LASD Deputy Fred Nova was, as he explained it, on the suppression side of law enforcement when it came to gangs. Specifically, he worked in a COPS Bureau** “suppression team” at the LASD’s Carson station. Then one day Todd Rodgers, who was then the captain at Carson, asked him to come up with a gang intervention and diversion program that would have a positive effect on the city’s gang members who were “causing damage to property and lives in the city,” said Noya. (Rodgers is now an assistant sheriff at the sheriff’s department.)
Enforcement could only go so far, Rodgers felt. He wanted a ““community-based intervention strategy” that interwove police efforts with those of community organizations.
Noya signed on enthusiastically. “I decided I had to make it personal,” he told me. “I had to act as if it was my own kids I was working with.” If he looked at the nascent program any other way, “like as a stepping stone” on a career path, “it wouldn’t have worked.”
The need was apparent. “We’d had a lot of parents coming to us. Mom’s crying that they were afraid of their kids,” or that their kids wouldn’t go to school.”
When it was first launched, the program dealt mostly with active gang members. But, over time, it widened to include kids who were on the fringe of gangs, the wannabes and the soon-to-be’s. “We thought, why don’t we get ‘em before they get to the point” of arrest or serious police involvement, said Noya.
The way the program worked was that kids would be referred to GDT—by parents, by school officials, by law enforcement, and in some cases, just walk ins who’d heard something interesting was going on.
Each kid would go through assessment by a case manager to determine their level of risk, the details of their family situation, educational needs, drug involvement, mental and emotional issues, and more. Then after a thorough review, each boy or girl would be referred to a list services in the form of a detailed action plan.
The programatic referrals included things like mentoring, tutoring, a life skills class, anger management, drug and rehab programs, and various kinds of rewards, like trips or outings offered as incentives. During the process, each kid’s progress is monitored and documented.
The GDT program serves both boys and girls, although boys are still in the majority. On the girls’ side of things, Deputy Noya pointed to the example of a girl named Kiani Dean, whose grandma brought her to the program. Kiana, Noya said, was a frequent runaway who was overly tattooed, and suffered from depression, and a general lack of self worth. After participating in a year of mentoring and conflict resolution programs through GDT, Noya said, Kiani was able to begin to turn things around. Now, after graduating from high school with honors, Kiani is an honors student at Hampton University, with plans to become a doctor.
GETTING OUT OF “THE DARK PLACE”
Sometimes, Noya noted, the success stories are far less obvious than that of high-achieving Kiani.
One night just before Christmas 2014, he said, “this guy came up to me in the station.” The boy, now an 18 year old, had been in the program a few years before, but not done well. A gang member who continued to cause trouble and get into regular fights, Noya’d had more than a few “go-rounds” with the kid, he said.
Then one night the boy—now legally a man—approached Noya at the Carson station house and said, “Hey, Deputy Noya, remember me.”
“I remember you,” said Noya cautiously.
“Can we walk outside,” the kid said.
The deputy found himself instantly on alert, thinking that perhaps the kid intended to take a swing him, Noya said when he told me the story.
Once outside, the young man’s expression changed. “I just wanted to say ‘thank you,’” he said. “I never had a dad and I appreciate all that you said to me.”
Noya listened, stunned. “I don’t do crime anymore,” the young man continued. “I’ve done some bad things. But now I’m managing a pizza place.” He didn’t make a lot of money, he said. “But I make enough to take care of my mom.”
Noya remember that, a few years before, he’d become so exasperated with the kid, and the trouble he caused, that he’d told him it would be better for all concerned if he left town.
The former gangster reminded Noya of his advice about leaving. “You were right,” he said. And he did leave.
He now lives in Inglewood, he said.
Noya was blown away. “Honestly, when he asked me to walk outside, I thought for sure we were going to battle.” Instead the young man thanked him over and over.
But the thanks didn’t end with the one visit.
Late one night after the reunion at the station, the young man texted Noya.
“Thanks for getting me out of the dark place,” read the text.
Noya allowed amazement to creep into his voice as he told me the story.
“Kids’ll surprise you,” he said. “You never know when something you say is going to take root.”
That’s why he loves this program, Noya said.
*”Luis’s” real name was not be used to protect his privacy.
**COPS Bureau, is the federally funded Community Oriented Policing Services, which include targeted gang suppression.