Students learn about gang violence, justice system

VISTA — Angry and driven by rage, Tony Hicks, then 14, shot and killed a pizza delivery driver on the order of an 18-year-old gang leader in 1995. Hicks shot 20-year-old Tariq Khamisa, a San Diego State student working as a part-time delivery driver, once in the head.
Khamisa died immediately. He would have turned 35 on March 6.
Hicks, on the other hand, made history by becoming the first juvenile in California to be tried as an adult. He’s currently serving a life sentence at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California.
From their fractured lives, Khamisa’s father, Azim, and Hicks’ grandfather and guardian, Ples Felix, united to establish the Tariq Khamisa Foundation to bring youth awareness to the realities of gang violence.
The two men spoke March 6 to approximately 70 Rancho Buena Vista students as part of the North County Superior Court’s Youth in Court Day. Felix and Azim Khamisa’s presentations were held in Judge Joan Weber’s courtroom. It was Weber, one of the organizers of the acclaimed outreach program, who sentenced Hicks 14 years ago.
Underscoring their message of the “senselessness“ of gang violence, the men challenged the students to “think” and not to let anger dictate their life.
“Revenge is the precursor of every new act of violence,” Azim Khamisa said. These are sentiments North County residents know all too well. A few years ago, a gang war raged in Oceanside after Pearl Seau was shot in her garage. The tit for tat violence that ensued lasted for several years. Some paid with lengthy prison stays, while others —both gang members and innocent bystanders — paid with their lives.
And while that war has cooled, gang activity and violence continues in North County. Several weeks ago, a teen was shot in the head during a gang-related shooting in Carlsbad. It was also around that time the Oceanside Police Department announced the arrest of 15 gang-affiliated suspects during a six-month drug investigation.
In 2008, the San Diego Association of Governments cited North County as home to 20 criminal street gangs totaling 1,619 documented members and 1,265 gang affiliates. More than half the students in attendance March 6 raised their hands when asked if they knew someone associated with a gang.
Leading by example, Azim Khamisa said he forgave Hicks, now 28, after meeting with him in prison five years after the shooting. He said he is now petitioning to have Hicks released early, so he can come work for the Tariq Khamisa Foundation. Currently, Hicks isn’t eligible for parole until 2027.
“From conflict you can create peace and unity,” Azim Khamisa said.
For senior Tiffany Vansteenwyk, the presentation made a current class assignment much more relevant. She said the story of Felix and Azim Khamisa reminded her of the bond formed by the two fathers in the novel “Cry, the Beloved Country,” which she’s currently reading for school.
“Their story was definitely inspirational,” Vansteenwyk said.
The Youth in Court Day program, which started as a way to expose young kids to the justice system, has grown to include high school students. In 2005, the program received an award from the American Bar Association naming it one of the best outreach programs in the country.
This year more than 1,000 students from North County schools attended the outreach program. In the afternoon, juniors and seniors were privileged to a handful of presentations about the criminal justice system that included topics on domestic violence, drinking and driving and substance abuse. Elementary and middle school students participated in mock trials during the morning session.
“It’s a wonderful introduction to the court system,” Weber said. “Most people at some point in their lives will be involved in the justice system.”

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