|Marco Garcia uses MySpace to find out what his students may not tell him.
Using the popular Web site, Garcia, at-risk-intervention supervisor at Graham Middle School, is able to watch as students post gang signs and colors, drug-related or sexually explicit images on their profiles.
The social networking site has become one of his biggest resources in eliminating gang culture on campus, Garcia said during a Challenge Team meeting last Thursday. At Challenge Team meetings, local educators, police officers and community leaders get together to discuss the gang- and drug-related issues students face.
Although he visits students' homes and participates in police ride-alongs, Garcia says he gets the most insight while searching MySpace, and he hopes other educators will follow his lead. Garcia said the majority of the students he works with -- those who have been identified by teachers, for a wide range of reasons, as being "at risk," or who are not earning passing grades in school -- are MySpace users. Others have joined Facebook and LinkedIn, he said.
"Every kid makes himself public on MySpace," Garcia said. "I get to know the individual on a deeper level, by just reading their diary, since they made it public."
If he sees something alarming online, Garcia arranges a meeting with the student and their parents, who are often surprised their child is on MySpace. Many do not have computers or the Internet at home. Some students can outsmart the district's Internet filters, or go to the Mountain View library, which for privacy reasons can only prohibit users from accessing pornography.
"I assess what is going on; there is a reason they can't get a 2.0 [grade point average], besides learning disabilities," Garcia said.
Garcia, who joined the Mountain View Whisman School District two years ago, reads postings on students' MySpace profiles, and looks through the photos they post there. He recently was surprised at a family picture posted by one of his students, a Norteno gang member.
"You have the dad, son and grandson, and they are all in red," Garcia said, referring to that gang's color.
He has some students with high GPAs, but who come from neighborhoods known for their gang activity, and he helps them get involved with community programs such as PAL, the Police Action League. But many, Garcia said, have lost "hope in their education, and they come to school to socialize."
"They are kids who do not care," he said.
Since some students have as many as 1,000 "friends" on their profile, Garcia can easily keep track of their social networks. Older gang members try to recruit Graham students, often newcomers and special education students, through music and images on MySpace.
"Before you know it, students are starting to wear red or blue," Garcia said. "They are preying on our kids."
Garcia has a different problem with his female students, who often lie about their age on their MySpace profile, and pursue relationships with older men. He is currently watching over a female student, age 11, whose MySpace profile says she is 20 years old and from Puerto Rico.
From her MySpace page, Garcia found out that she was meeting an 18-year-old Sunnyvale man at the Mountain View Library. She had only connected online with the man the day before.
He showed up himself to find the two hugging.
"This is an issue that happened outside of school, but can be brought to the parents' attention," Garcia said. "'Look, this is the reason your daughter is failing her class, because she is spending x amount of time online.'"
Gang grant problematic
Also at the Challenge Team meeting last week, police Chief Scott Vermeer told participants that budget cuts could prevent the Mountain View Police Department from accepting a $160,000 gang prevention grant, which requires a matching fund from the department.
The state offered the department a portion of its California Gang Reduction, Intervention and Prevention Program grant for anti-gang activities, but to acquire it, the MVPD must also invest in the programs, said police spokesperson Liz Wylie.
Although the department still hopes to receive the grant, "It comes down to budget issues," Wylie said.
The MVPD did not expect to be offered the grant, which normally goes to cities with more gang activity like Richmond and Los Angeles. Still, the department is now searching for matching funds for the grant.
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