CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Kanani Santos, right, once destined for the street, was saved by a youth program and a foster mother, Allene Uesugi, with whom she is shown in her Waianae home.
Kin conflict can cause adolescent aggression
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With a six-bedroom home, Allene Uesugi already had her hands full.
Then 13-year-old Kanani Santos walked through her door.
"It was bad news," recalls Uesugi, who became Santos' foster mother four years ago. "Her speech, her looks, her action, everything was very negative. She was getting into fights all the time, even if she didn't pick the fight. It was magnetic."
Santos had her reasons. She was born to a wild teenage mother who eventually became homeless, and a father who went to jail because of drugs.
"My mom ... left me and my sister for her boyfriend," Santos said. "When she walked out, I became really angry."
Santos is not alone.
Across the state, nearly half of all schoolchildren deal with family conflicts at home, according to a 2002 state study. Child advocates worry that with little supervision, the students -- especially those from poor households -- are more likely to drop out and enter a lifestyle of crimes and gangs.
Social workers say more support centers are needed for students and their parents. As long as there are programs, they say, there is hope.
Without the help she got, Santos says, "I'd probably be one of these teens on the side of the road, maybe pregnant."
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KANANI SANTOS lost hope in life when she was 13.
Abandoned by a young mother and with her father in jail, Santos turned to classmates who went to Waianae Intermediate School to pick fights and unleash her anger.
"I wouldn't even wait for trouble to come to me," she recalls. "I would be the one to cause the trouble. I didn't have any reasons to fight with anyone, but I made reasons."
When school counseling did not work, Santos' foster mother, Allene Uesugi, forced her to attend the Boys and Girls Club.
"She never wanted to be there," Uesugi said, "but the staff were very nurturing. They listened to her problems because this kid came in with so much baggage it wasn't funny."
Now 17, Santos is getting A's and B's as a junior at Waianae High, playing soccer and interning at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center as she pursues a career in nursing or psychology.
Her story is one example of the critical role social service agencies play in catching at-risk youth before they pick the street over the classroom. Oftentimes the groups are what prevents some of the 15 percent of children who drop out of the public education system each year from entering a lifestyle of drugs, crimes and gangs.
"Their parents are lost, incarcerated or drugged-out homeless, so Grandma and Grandpa care for them," Flora Nash, vice principal of Nanakuli High and Intermediate School, said about Waianae Coast students during a recent community meeting to discuss splitting up the campus to improve student safety. "All of a sudden they are raising kids who are strung out, runaways and prostituting. I have cases like that, and that's for real in this community."
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Taysha Gatewood, 15, laughs with friends while crossing Farrington Highway in Waipahu. The youths participate in the Communities in Schools of Hawaii Project, which encourages kids and adults to be involved in education and the community through Hawaiian cultural values.
Stories like that of Santos can be heard at other agencies such as Parents and Children Together, which sees nearly 500 kids from across Oahu annually, and at Communities in Schools, a program that serves another 300 poor students, most of them from Waipahu.
To Get Help
Adult Friends for Youth
Boys and Girls Club
Communities in Schools
Parents and Children Together
Susannah Wesley Community Center
But those types of programs are in short supply, according to Tony Pfaltzgraff, vice president and co-executive director of the YMCA in Kalihi, who estimates services are available to less than half of the population that needs them on Oahu.
"That's the big gap that we have in this community," said Pfaltzgraff, whose organization works with about 1,000 students from 16 high schools and 14 middle schools. "If you go to Punahou (School), you paddle after you go to school, and your mom picks you up after paddling. But there are thousands of kids on this island who don't have that recourse."
While he believes most teenagers who claim to be part of a gang in Hawaii are seeking an image, not a desire to rebel against society, Pfaltzgraff said gangs tend to be a "cyclical" problem that can escalate without warning.
Boys and Girls Club director Dave Nakada agreed that the state needs more centers to keep children busy and away from streets.
"Some kids, as adults today, will tell us, 'If it weren't for the club, I may have gotten into more trouble, and I could have joined a gang,'" said Nakada, whose group provides homework help, computers, activities and excursions to some 14,000 kids on Oahu and Kauai each year. "Some kids go as far as saying, 'The club saved my life.'"
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
"Gangs, drugs, those are ... the symptoms that alert us. That's not the problem. The problem are the changes in terms of family dynamics," said program director Fay Uyeda, left, shown with Micah Shiroma, 9.
IN 2002, the most recent time the state Department of Health surveyed sixth-, eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders from public and private schools about gangs, it found that about 11.3 percent of the more than 28,000 students reported being involved in a gang. They answered "yes" to questions like "Have you ever belonged to a gang?" "Did the gang have a name?" and "Are you currently in a gang?"
Youth gangs are not limited to schools in poor or urban neighborhoods, but they are more prevalent on campuses where a large portion of students are labeled "economically disadvantaged," social workers say.
Oahu schools Farrington, McKinley, Waianae, Kaimuki, Nanakuli, Waipahu, Waialua and Kahuku all have more than half of their students in that category. Statewide, about 40 percent of the more than 178,000 public school students come from poor backgrounds.
"We as a community have failed to reach out to those kids. Why does it need to get to that point, with kids getting into those situations? When are we going to reach out to them? When they go and shoot somebody or commit crimes? That's a bit too late."
Founder and executive director of the Next Step Project
"There may be a couple groups, but really small. I think we can deal with the issue, even though you never know the magnitude it will be when it comes, but we are prepared."
Principal of Nanakuli High and Intermediate School
"It just seemed to me -- in reading about things and then speaking to people who work in the areas -- it just seemed like something is going on, that it may be cropping back up again. When you think about it, it's a coordinated effort of kids doing things that are illegal, and that is by definition what a gang is."
Children and youth specialists with the Office of Youth Services
"We find people who are new, kids who are new to Hawaii, maybe they don't speak English so they begin to affiliate with a group that accepts them and speaks their language. That's how some of the gangs form. But sometimes it's just a tradition in different housing communities."
Farrington High principal
Christian Ellswick, a 17-year-old who first tried drugs when he was 12 while living in a downtown housing project, was nearly lured into gangs when he was told he would not graduate from Roosevelt High School because of low attendance. He enrolled at the Susannah Wesley Community Center in Kalihi to get an alternative diploma.
"I used to get good grades," said Ellswick, who wants to be a social worker or a psychologist. "It was just substances, cutting class, and you'd get people to fight you."
Neglected by parents who work multiple jobs, students from poor families often join gangs because they feel inferior and see no future in education, said Sid Rosen, who retired this year as head of Adult Friends for Youth, a nonprofit that works with gangs in Hawaii. Gangs are formed along ethnic lines but also by students who share housing projects or street blocks, he said.
"They are living essentially in what is an urban ghetto. If you live in Kalihi, you see yourself as being different than someone who lives in Hawaii Kai," Rosen explained. "The rich haoles live in Hawaii Kai and Kahala, and us poor Filipinos live in Kalihi and us poor Samoans live in Kuhio Park Terrace. ... These boundaries get established."
In the past four years, the Susannah Wesley center has seen about 200 student dropouts, most of them immigrants from outlying islands of Micronesia, the Philippines, Samoa or Tonga, said Stanley Inkyo, the center's youth services administrator.
Families bring their children to Hawaii for a better education, but many parents get stuck with low-paying jobs or end up living in the street and unable to help their kids adjust to the new school setting, Inkyo said.
Aggravating the issue is an influx of Micronesian students in Hawaii's public schools which has nearly doubled in the past five years to 2,558, according to the state Department of Education. The department held a conference for 1,000 educators during the summer to help teachers understand and work better with those students.
"One of the things you'll notice here, and I don't think anybody wants to say it publicly, there's a lot of the racial differences, or the ethnic differences that tend to magnify" the gang issue, Inkyo said, saying Filipino students often clash with those from Micronesia. "There's that kind of uneasiness."
Those tensions were what swung Molokai Maumalanga into a life of drinking, partying and crime when he moved here from Tonga 20 years ago.
Growing up near Tamashiro Market in Kalihi, Maumalanga joined a gang in third grade, when he was only 8 years old, after he got tired of being bullied. He eventually hooked up with an older gang, for whom he would initially hide weapons for a few bucks or a burger, then go on joy rides to torment neighboring gangs as a member of the Cross Sun.
And it was not until Maumalanga was arrested in a drive-by shooting involving the rival Pinoy gang that he decided to quit and face his enemies in a meeting set up by Adult Friends for Youth.
"I think that really changed my perspective on things. That is where the change started," said Maumalanga, a stocky 31-year-old who graduated from Honolulu Community College this year and now works for Adult Friends for Youth. "Since that day, the peace just spread among gangs in Kalihi. Word spread that we had buried the hatchet."
Recently, however, Maumalanga has noticed a spike in underprivileged kids wearing colored bandannas, greeting each other with gang signs and handshakes or even marking their wrists with cigarette burns as they hang out by Kuhio Park Terrace, Mayor Wright Housing and Kalihi Valley Homes.
"A lot of these kids have a lot of issues, ranging from peer pressure to violence to anger. They feel inferior because they are poor," he said. "There's a crisis out there ready to blow up."
EDUCATION officials also say the key to reduce violence and gangs at schools is to have more support services aimed at preventing students from ending up among the more than 200 incarcerated teens attending Olomana School in Kailua this year. Enrollment at the only school of its kind in the state is expected to grow by the spring semester, said Principal August Suehiro.
"It's up to the schools to never give up on the kids," he said.
Each year, public schools offer alternative classes to some 3,000 students dealing with low attendance, course failures, disciplinary referrals, arrests or hardships created by pregnancy, said Russell Yamauchi, an educational specialist from the student support section.
The programs are part of the department's Comprehensive Student Support System, which ranges from basic tutoring to one-on-one psychological treatment, said Daniel Hamada, who is with the Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Student Support.
"It's not the kids' fault, but they just need focused, sustained support," Hamada said. "Will it work out all the time? We can't guarantee that. But we know that kids have a ... safe haven or person to come to."
Meanwhile, to keep campuses safe, education officials are revamping the student misconduct code and pushing for controversial laws to allow drug-sniffing dogs inside schools and let administrators search students' lockers without reason or cause.
The new guidelines are among proposed changes to the so-called Chapter 19, which has been untouched since 2001.
For example, a new clause being added to rules would make any student who supports a fight, either by cheering or forming a circle around it, guilty of participating in it. Another section would allow for penalties against a student to "be carried over to the next school year" even if the offense happened in the last days of the spring semester.
And for the first time, "gang paraphernalia" is listed as contraband, said returning school board member John Penebacker, who introduced Chapter 19 in the early '80s to give administrators a consistent set of rules to punish misbehaving students.
"I made sure there was some special attention given to the issue of gangs and fights," said Penebacker, who was re-elected last year on a platform of school safety. "I felt there was a need to send a strong message to kids who were not good citizens: that if they were going to be disruptive, that we will act accordingly."