LOS ANGELES — It's a Saturday morning and a half-dozen adults are sitting in a high school classroom, staring at grim photos of sickly drug addicts and hearing about the deadly consequences of gang crime. They'd rather not be here, but a judge made them come.
The moms and dads were ordered to attend the class under a new California law giving judges the option of sending parents for training when their kids are convicted of gang crimes for the first time.
Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, the lawmaker behind the Parent Accountability Act, said it is the first state law to give judges the power to order parents of gang members to school, though other court-mandated classes exist at the local level.
"A lot of parents do not know how to handle teenagers," Mendoza said. "Now more than ever, parents need a guide."
The new law went into effect in January and eventually will be in place across California. Budget cuts in Sacramento meant implementation of the classes was delayed and only in the past month or so have they been rolled out on a limited basis in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Several of those first classes were canceled due to low attendance, something organizers blamed on judges' ignorance of the new law. But the sputtering start also speaks to the difficulties of trying to engage parents who may be too busy or apathetic to take a more active role in their kids' lives.
Authorities say Los Angeles County has about 80,000 gang members, though those estimates vary. Parents in gang neighborhoods often struggle to make ends meet and find themselves working more than one job. The long hours mean they can't spend much time with their kids and some youngsters say they are tempted into gang life by a sense of companionship missing from their own family.
"The most difficult thing is to have control of the kids," said Socorro Gonzalez, a housekeeper who was ordered to a recent class after her son, a member of the San Fer gang, got into trouble. "When I come home, I don't know what they have been up to."
At the class last month with six parents, an instructor speaking in Spanish flashed images of drug paraphernalia and showed pictures of addicts before and after they acquired their habit. At a later session, another instructor outlined classic warning signs of gang involvement – tattoos, secretive behavior, sudden changes in musical tastes and the use of gang hand signals.
Jose and Rosalva Rodriguez attended one of the first classes, which was held on two consecutive Saturdays at a high school in the San Fernando Valley. Their 16-year-old son had been accused of spraying graffiti when police arrested him at a party attended by gang members.
In addition to sentencing him to one year's probation, community service and counseling, the judge ordered the parents to attend the class, where they heard about tough legal penalties levied against gang members and how they could get more involved in their kids' lives.
"It was very important," Jose Rodriguez said after driving an hour from Lancaster, a sprawling city in the high desert north of Los Angeles. "I'm going to speak to him, listen to him and give him advice."
The 48-year-old baker said he learned how to spot the warning signs of gang involvement, including if his son was carrying markers that can be used for gang graffiti.
Eventually, the classes will include the family members of victims of gang crime speaking to parents about their ordeals.
"There is nothing more moving than someone sitting in front of you, telling you how they felt when they heard the gunshots or their son or daughter was killed," Mendoza said.
The classes are supposed to be self funding and parents will eventually pay $20 or so a class, but the fee is being waived for now to draw more participants.
If parents fail to attend, they could be held in contempt of court. Judges are likely to lenient initially because only four high schools are offering the classes, making it impractical for parents without cars to attend.
Olu Orange, an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California's political science department, said he was troubled by the possibility of parents being held in contempt for an offense committed by their child and adjudicated by a juvenile judge and not a jury.
"The prospect of parents being subject to criminal penalties for violating a court order that is imposed on them as part of a non-jury process scares me," Orange said.
The law was inspired by Mendoza's own brush with gang life.
Growing up in the gritty Florence neighborhood south of downtown Los Angeles, Mendoza saw the importance of parental involvement. The second youngest of nine kids, he was drifting toward gang life and sported the shaved head and baggy Dickies shorts favored by many Latino street gang members.
His cousin was headed the same way. But when Mendoza's mother started to clamp down on which friends he could hang out with, his aunt was less strict. The cousin eventually became a full-blown member of the Florencia-13 street gang and was killed in a drive-by shooting in the early 1990s.
"My mom started getting more involved and prohibited us from hanging out with certain people," Mendoza said. "My aunt didn't."
Other court-mandated classes exist, including the Parent Project, a 10-week program in Los Angeles County that counsels parents and their kids who may be skipping school, taking drugs or involved in gang life.
Rick Velasquez, executive director of Youth Outreach Services in Chicago, said parenting classes seemed like a good idea but noted that judges could often do a much better job of getting parents involved in their child's activities simply by speaking with them when they show up in court to support their children.
Elsewhere, other penalties exist for parents of children who get into trouble. In several jurisdictions, including Santa Fe, N.M., and San Juan Capistrano in Orange County, parents of kids caught spraying graffiti must pay the bill to clean it up.
A new law going into effect in California next year would let officials prosecute parents when their kids skip school.
Pasadena juvenile Judge Philip Soto said he'd not had a case yet where he could send parents to the new Parent Accountability class, but he supported it.
"It's always difficult in court when the parents come in and feign ignorance and say, 'I didn't know anything about this,'" Soto said. "You have to sit back and wonder how can you miss these signs."