Education was a recurring theme at a Friday meeting of the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs in Pasco -- the need for more education funding, the need to keep students in schools to keep them out of gangs, and the need for a path to higher education for undocumented students.
Parents, educators and lawmakers told commission members that they see otherwise bright, promising students get into trouble because they either don't have strong role models at home or they don't have activities to keep them engaged.
The consensus among panelists at the commission meeting at Columbia Basin College was that the entire community must be involved to make inroads into the gang problem in the Tri-Cities and across the state.
"It takes a community to affect a community," said Pastor Jesse Campos of Teen Challenge, a nationwide Christian organization the helps people break free of substance abuse.
Campos has been working locally to expand Teen Challenge's efforts to gang outreach. He said he's working with 50 former gang members to help them change their lives.
He said mentoring and relationship building are critical to understanding why a teenager -- or an even younger child -- might get involved in a gang.
He offered the story of a boy who turned to a gang after being molested by a family member.
"I can understand why he joined a gang," Campos said. "Sometimes we need the relationship to understand their experiences."
Pasco police Detective Kirk Nebeker said many of the gang members he's dealt with said their gang became their family.
"I agree it probably starts in the family," said Jason Aguilera, a senior at Pasco's Chiawana High School. "The kids don't have the love in the house that they need. ... We need more programs that give kids the attention they need."
But sometimes that's because parents have to work long hours to support the family and can't be there when their children come home from school, several panelists said.
Father Daniel Barnett of Saint Patrick's Catholic Church in Pasco said teen participation in gangs is a symptom of a larger problem -- the breakdown of the family.
"(Parents) need to not have to work six (12-hour days) so they can come home and be with their kids at night," he said.
On the other hand, solving the problem isn't as easy as telling parents to work less when they have to keep roofs over their children's heads and food on their tables, other panelists said.
Several parents in the audience said they'd like to see more extracurricular activities offered -- especially sports.
But those activities need to be affordable, they said.
Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, said members of the Legislature have recognized the need for early learning programs and extracurricular activities to help keep children out of gangs, but have been stymied by multibillion-dollar deficits for the past few years.
"The problem is the money just isn't there," Nealey said.