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TMCNet:  Cutler-Orosi fights back: Violence and poverty won't stop the Tulare Co. area from going forward.

[February 02, 2008]

Cutler-Orosi fights back: Violence and poverty won't stop the Tulare Co. area from going forward.

(Fresno Bee (CA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Feb. 2--The twin communities of Cutler-Orosi mirror the problems of many small unincorporated towns across the Valley.

Poverty. Gang violence. Decay.

But all of those issues are magnified here in northern Tulare County, where towns separated by less than a mile on Highway 63 have a combined population of about 13,000 that represents the largest unincorporated community in the central San Joaquin Valley.


"Cutler-Orosi has gotten really bad lately, especially in the last year," Orosi resident Isaac Aceves said.

The headlines in that time have included two fatal stabbings in Orosi; the arrest of a former Cutler resident for allegedly killing a sheriff's detective; the arrest of an Orosi woman for allegedly abandoning three of her babies in town; and a drive-by shooting that forced officials to lock down an Orosi elementary school.

The bad news didn't end with the police blotter. A national study labeled Orosi High a "dropout factory," and some students there protested a new dress code -- intended to eliminate gang colors on campus -- by staging a walkout.

Residents and county officials are fighting back: El Monte Middle School in Orosi opened a new gymnasium and eight new classrooms in December; a sheriff's department substation opened Dec. 10 in Cutler; and the county got a $175,000 federal grant to fight crime in Cutler-Orosi, with a chance at five years' worth of funding that could total $1 million.

And they're not done. An anti-gang summit is scheduled at El Monte school March 12.

Some even dream that one day there will be a strong enough local economy to support incorporation, giving residents city services such as their own police department.

"There are a lot of issues in this community," said county Supervisor Steve Worthley, whose district includes Cutler-Orosi. "I see some opportunities here. Growing population creates challenges and opportunities."

Without a city council or staff, many in the community look to the county and local school district for help.

The new Sheriff's Department Cutler substation is the headquarters for 20 deputies who patrol a vast area in northwestern Tulare County.

Lt. Gary Chambers, who commands the substation, said the area's problems are no different than other rural communities in the central San Joaquin Valley.

He said there is a big gang problem, but can't say whether Cutler-Orosi has seen a significant increase in crime recently.

Yet, there is no denying that Cutler-Orosi has seen its share of recent negative news.

An Orosi mother was arrested last year for allegedly abandoning three newborns in the area during a 21/2-year span. The December 2006 death of one of the babies, later named Angelita DeOrosi, or "The Little Angel of Orosi," made national headlines.

Jorge Gomez Banda, who is awaiting trial in the December killing of Tulare County sheriff's detective Kent Haws in nearby Ivanhoe, grew up and lived in the area, attending school in the Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District.

Between 50 and 75 Orosi High students walked out on their final exams Dec. 14 to protest a dress-code policy banning gang attire including the colors red, blue and brown. In the days leading up to the protest, several fights erupted on campus and rumors of a drive-by shooting prompted officials to close the campus.

In January, Chambers took county supervisors Worthley and Phil Cox on a tour to highlight how officials plan to use the federal money.

Chambers pointed out sneakers dangling on utility lines that he said signify where someone was "jumped" into a gang.

These shoes and other eyesores, such as walls covered with graffiti, serve as uneasy reminders of the troubles plaguing the community.

The federal government sees Cutler-Orosi as a community that has "suffered because of criminal activity and social decay," according to the U.S. Attorney General's Office.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded 38 communities each $175,000 "weed and seed" grants. The Sheriff's Department could receive up to $1 million by the end of the five-year grant.

The funds will allow deputies to conduct anti-gang and drug sweeps, graffiti abatement and start neighborhood-watch programs.

During a January sweep, deputies netted 13 arrests and recovered five guns, Chambers said.

The grant also enables the school district to open "safe haven" after-school sites at Cutler Elementary School and Golden Valley Elementary in Orosi, which was locked down for about 90 minutes last May after a drive-by shooting in the neighborhood.

Logan Robertson, the district's assistant director of community services, said the community suffers by not having a youth center such as a YMCA or Boys & Girls Club that helps keep children off the streets.

Because Cutler-Orosi is unincorporated, Robertson said, there is no city Parks and Recreation Department to help fill that void -- so the schools must seek outside money to pay for after-school services.

"The school district takes a leadership role in a lot of initiatives in the community," she said.

Some have worked well, such as the junior high school and high school Advancement Via Individual Determination programs, which were named AVID national demonstration schools for others to emulate.

The district's superintendent, Carolyn Kehrli, was honored in 2007 as the California Adult Education Administrator of the Year for her work with the adult-school program.

Despite the recognition, Orosi High School was named a "dropout factory" in a Johns Hopkins University study released in October.

It is a dubious designation that Kehrli disputes because she said the study didn't count students who left the high school for charter programs.

"We are certainly not a dropout factory," she said.

Kehrli said she chooses to focus on the positive things happening in the community, such as the December opening of the El Monte gym.

"We're not about the guy who gets stabbed in the parking lot," she said.

March's gang summit, aimed at educating families, will take place at the new gym.

"Kids see a first-class facility and it gives them a chance to step up," Supervisor Worthley said. "I'm very hopeful for this community."

During the tour, Worthley pointed to an empty lot near the sheriff's substation along Highway 63. He said it would be nice to see a new shopping center there.

The community needs to figure out ways to attract businesses to create a sales-tax base that could support a Cutler-Orosi city, Worthley said.

Despite the obstacles facing this community, Kehrli remains optimistic.

When El Monte students buried a time capsule in December, Kehrli said she envisioned an incorporated Cutler-Orosi with a freeway connecting it to Visalia by the time the capsule is opened in 50 years.

The reporter can be reached at elacayo@fresnobee.com or(559) 622-2421.

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