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Murray Journal

Murray School District places student advocates in schools

Nov 01, 2017 09:12AM ● By Julie Slama

Murray School District received a three-year grant to have full-time student advocates in each of the secondary schools. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

This school year, students may have an extra hand giving them high-fives in the halls and helping them focus on attending class and getting good grades.

Murray School District recently received a three-year Utah State Office of Education gang prevention and intervention grant to place student advocates in schools. 

“Our goal is to help mentor students so they develop good behavior, attendance, academic and life skills,” said Darren Dean, District director of personnel and student services. “We want to identify those who are at high risk so they’re not sidetracked. We want to have a positive impact.”

The $284,000 grant pays for training as well as the student advocates, who are from the Unified Police Department and trained in gang signs and affiliation. There is a student advocate placed in Murray High, Riverview Junior High and Hillcrest Junior High as well as one shared throughout the sixth grade in elementary schools. Each advocate has curriculum from the “Choose Gang Free” created by the Salt Lake Area Gang Project for gang prevention and intervention across the Wasatch Front. 

Depending on the age level, the website,, states students in the classroom may learn to identify what is a gang and who joins; graffiti; gang violence; impact on the family; peer pressure; gang tattoos, signs and symbols; gangs and the police; alternatives; students’ future; and choice.

“Our staff went through training where we learned the signs of gangs from what they wear to kids wanting to belong so they join. We want students to have allies in the school, someone to help them, stand up with them, be in their corner to support them,” Dean said, adding that advocates will approach students and parents for their permission to be part of the program. 

Student advocates will regularly meet with school teams as well as students’ families to help come up with solutions and resources for issues and concerns, he said.

Dean said that every school district in the state was able to apply for a portion of the $1.2 million state grant.

“We have students affiliated with gangs in Murray, but it’s not a problem and we want to take an active approach in prevention and interaction,” he said.

Murray Police Officer Matt Dibble agrees: “I can count on one hand a legitimate few individuals in gangs who aren’t causing problems. But we could definitely have more gang prevention education in our schools.”

At Riverview Junior High, Principal Jim Bouwman supports having an advocate at the school.

“I’m excited that we’re able to branch out and help students,” he said. “Even if gang participation is low, it’s still out there and we can educate our students of the pressures of belonging to a gang and how it is in songs, internet, videos and how we can help and support them.”

At Murray High, student advocate and Unified Police gang prevention specialist Veronica Bustillos already has been talking to students and their families about options.

“Some students only know the gang life, and I want them to know there’s another future ahead of them,” she said.

Bustillos is living proof. After being harassed while growing up in Mexico, she joined a gang to help her “be safe.” 

But by her mid-20s, she wanted out.

“I was tired of looking behind my back. I stepped away from it. I was sick of being scared. I wanted college and a good job, but it was hard for me to find someone to believe in me,” she said.

Realizing that she had a unique perspective of a successful turnabout with her life, Bustillos gained the support of police in Vancouver, Wash.  and became their gang advocate before coming to support students in Utah.

“I talk to kids who are causing problems with tagging, threatening another student, truancy. I asked them if they want to be in the program. I’m not there to judge or babysit, but I tell them, ‘I’ll fight for you’ if they want it. It’s all about what they want and I empower them to make the choice. If they choose it, then I tell them ‘I’m your girl. I’ll stand up for you.’ I know that makes a big difference,” she said.

Bustillos said Murray School District is taking a pro-active approach.

“Utah’s gang problem is accelerating, but when school districts decided there is a problem, there is help. We teach faculty and staff not only how to talk and respect students, but also how parents and the community can help. We can give kids other options and tools how to talk to those with authority, how we can help with attendance and homework and how to change behavior,” she said.

Murray High Principal Scott Wihongi said student advocates also talk to students who may be considering gang activity or have friends who are in gangs and serve as a resource and mentor to help them make positive choices. 

“The more resources and advocates we can provide for kids, the better,” he said.