ASHLAND -- Students making the mile-long trek down Ashland Avenue on their way home or to a nearby youth center all too frequently cross paths with gang members, thieves and bullies.

After sheriff's deputies responded to 159 calls on Ashland Avenue alone in the last six months -- including a sexual assault, displaying of a weapon, a robbery and 10 batteries -- a sheriff's deputy enlisted the Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs' Activities League to help report crimes and escort the students who leave San Lorenzo High and Edendale Middle School on their way home or to the new REACH Ashland Youth Center. Ashland Avenue is not far from the Bay Fair BART station.

Aiyana Knowles, left, stops traffic for students on Ashland Avenue near Edendale Middle School during Operation Safe Passage on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, in
Aiyana Knowles, left, stops traffic for students on Ashland Avenue near Edendale Middle School during Operation Safe Passage on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, in San Lorenzo, Calif. The program uses a team of law enforcement officers along with parents, and staffers from the Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs' Activities League, to patrol parts of Ashland Avenue and East 14th Street twice a week as students leave area schools. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

"You have people on BART, they'll come take phones, take things, assault kids and then it's easy just to run back to the BART station, get on and bounce," said Deputy Priscilla Silva, who began noticing last school year that students walking along Ashland Avenue in the afternoon were vulnerable.

This fall, several parents joined the program, known as Operation Safe Passage. They, along with sheriff's deputies, saturate the area between 3 and 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.

With help from a $2,000 grant from Supervisor Nate Miley's office, volunteers are equipped with bright yellow vests and walkie talkies with a direct line to sheriff's deputies. Some volunteers take specific posts at problem areas, while others walk along Ashland Avenue with students, reporting any suspicious activity and relaying student concerns.

"You are an asset to me by just being a witness," and providing a description of the incident, suspect and any vehicle used, Silva said.

Ten sheriff's deputies and officers from the Highway Patrol -- which is responsible for safety on the main thoroughfare between East Lewelling Boulevard and East 14th Street -- took part in Operation Safe Passage last Thursday. Five volunteers joined them.

No day is the same, but the issues aren't dissimilar from what one escort, Roy Terry, faced growing up in Oakland, he said. Terry, now 22, is the outdoor program coordinator for the activities league.

"When I was about 12 years old, there was no organization to protect me when I had to look over my shoulder to see if I was going to get beat up," Terry said. "I didn't have this resource so I am glad to be a part of something that's helping the community out in that way."

Causing a lot of the problems are members of a subset of the Norteno gang, comprised of former students who have been expelled, said Silva, who has been the school resource officer at San Lorenzo High since January.

Clad in white T-shirts, bluejeans, black sweatshirts and red accessories, the gang members have assaulted students, tried to sell drugs and to recruit others in gang activity, Silva wrote in a notice to fellow law enforcement officers last month.

"They would always come right after school," Silva explained. "Never during. Never way after. Always right after school, and that is suspicious to me."

On Oct. 18, she said she arrested a gang member who had run from a fight. During a pat-down for weapons, she discovered he was carrying 37 individual bags of marijuana.

A few weeks earlier, Silva arrested a San Lorenzo High student for assault with a deadly weapon after he admitted to stomping on another student's head during a fight.

Students have been exposed to other upsetting incidents, Silva said. On Aug. 29, Silva shut down Ashland Avenue for three hours to deal with a suicidal former Marine in front of the high school. After declaring he wanted police to shoot him, he was arrested. The man told officers he had tossed a gun into bushes along Ashland Avenue, but it was never found.

On Sept. 11, a student brandished a foot-long machete around 3:40 p.m. in an attempt to "scare" a San Lorenzo High student he believed had punched his brother, he told police. He too was arrested. On Thursday, deputies had their eyes peeled for a fight rumored to be planned between two girls, one a Hayward student and the other from San Lorenzo.

Sheriff's deputies hope to get 15 to 30 volunteers involved in Operation Safe Passage as the school year goes on. They also want to involve local businesses who would display an Operation Safe Passage sticker in their window, letting students know they can come in for safety and to make a call for help if needed.

Nykeya Powell-Lee, 31, participated for the first time Thursday by helping direct traffic near Edendale Middle School.

"Kids are running and people aren't watching," Powell-Lee said. She hopes others give their time to the effort. "More people would give the opportunity for more kids to be safe."

Ashly McGlone covers San Lorenzo. Contact her at 510-293-2463. Follow her at Twitter.com/AshlyReports.

Operation Safe Passage
To get involved, contact Shamika Parker, community organizer for the Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs' Activities League, at (510) 427-6146.
Volunteers meet at 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays in front of Edendale Middle School, located at 16160 Ashland Avenue.