New efforts are underway in Petaluma to keep kids from joining gangs — something officials say is happening at an earlier age.

"There's been a gang issue in Petaluma since the late 1980s," said Bob Florez, longtime gang specialist and president of Santa Rosa-based gang prevention nonprofit Sunny Hills Services. "We're starting to see more sophistication from gangs in how they draw young people in, especially among the Surenos and the white pride gangs here in Petaluma."

The Police Department said there are currently about 200 gang members or gang associates residing in the Petaluma area. Of those, approximately 60 are gang members on active probation, parole or post-release supervision.

"The current youth gang problems in Petaluma are linked to a variety of adolescent issues, ranging from serious violence to truancy," said Petaluma Police Gang Sgt. Marty Frye. "Recently, the most common gang activity we are experiencing is intimidation or bullying and gang graffiti."

Florez said that Sunny Hills Services has noticed an emerging trend of gangs recruiting children as young as 10 to join in criminal activities while also keeping a lower profile to avoid attention from the local police and media.

"Kids are getting drawn in and going to other cities to commit crimes for the gangs," said Florez. "It may start with an active gang member taking a youth under his wing, introducing them to the party lifestyle, and leaving the kid to think it's just about having fun. But eventually, they become a steady part of the gang and they get called upon to act as a gang member."

Florez added that kids are no longer making efforts to publicly identify as gang members. Gone are the days of sporting red and blue to signal one's affiliation. "I've worked with many kids from Petaluma who have gone to the East Bay to commit their crimes and prove themselves to their Petaluma gang ties," said Florez. "The gangs don't want the publicity in Petaluma because that's their home base and they don't want the attention."

Frye said that it has been difficult for the Police Department to combat and prevent gang activity in recent years as the city's tight budget necessitated a reduction in police officers, including those stationed on school campuses. Those officers, known as student resource officers, used to perform a number of gang prevention activities.

"We've historically seen remarkable success in averting gang problems when school student resource officers were assigned to both Casa Grande and Petaluma high schools," said Frye. "They were often able to steer kids away from gangs early on by speaking with them, their families and connecting them with available resources."

With the economy rebounding, one student resource officer has returned to Petaluma High School, but Casa Grande is still operating without an officer on campus. The department is working to fund that additional position within the next year.

Florez said that the key to helping at-risk children — which he estimates to be about 25 percent of Petaluma's youth population — is changing the way kids perceive themselves.

"We want to help kids identify themselves as something other than a gang member," said Florez. "Once they see themselves as part of the community, they are much less likely to be sucked into that type of harmful behavior."

Armed with a $35,000 grant from Sonoma County's special education fund, Sunny Hills Services is teaming up with the local Boys & Girls Club to create a program that helps kids with just those issues.

The program, called Gang Prevention Through Targeted Outreach, will help 50 kids who are considered "at-risk" for gang activity — mostly identified by gang connections in their families or drug activity. David Solo, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Marin and Southern Sonoma Counties, said the program is designed to "mainstream" youths who might otherwise fall into negative or harmful activities.

"We manage each kid with mentoring, group counseling, anger management, academic support, goal setting and recreational activities," Solo said. Children involved in the program will also go through 10 weeks of gang prevention counseling with Florez, who will draw on his more than 18 years of experience with gangs.

The program will begin Aug. 19 and go through May 30, 2014. For more information visit www.petaluma-marinbcg.org.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)