Hartford is staking out new territory in its drive to curb the criminal activities of youth gangs, but the ''turf'' it has chosen is the classroom, not the streets.
By last spring youth gang warfare had claimed several lives in this midsize New England metropolis, and city officials saw no end to the escalation of violence.
But following a negotiated cease-fire between the city's four youth gangs community activists succeeded in devising and attracting funds for a two-year, $ 300,000 program called the Hartford Street Youth Project. These activists say they hope it will serve as a model for other US cities.
The resurgence of youth gangs in Hartford mirrors a nationwide trend, made more worrisome by a switch in gang tactics from petty vandalism to serious crime , from the use of knives to guns, and from internecine violence to assaults on nongang members.
''Gangs as a phenomenon go up and down in cycles,'' says Dr. Walter B. Miller , director of the National Youth Gang Survey for the Department of Justice. ''During the 1980s there has been a more serious gang problem in more American cities than at anytime in history.''
The Hartford program seeks to involve up to 400 gang members in constructive pursuits after first fostering pride and self-respect in their Puerto Rican heritage. Youth gang members serve as representatives on all project planning committees.
Project director Eugenio Caro explains the goal of the program:
''The idea is to give gang members a cultural identity, so that the individuals begin to develop some pride and see what they are capable of doing and contributing to the community. That way, rather than feeling neglected by the system, they become a part of it.''
These objectives are reinforced by instruction in remedial math and reading. The program will also include job training as well as tutoring in how to prepare for job interviews.
Success of the city, state, and privately funded project will depend largely on the efforts of four professional street workers. Equal emphasis will be placed on counseling those already in gangs and those youths in the 10-to-17 age bracket that are seen as potential gang members.
But some remain skeptical that any youth gang program in any city can be effective with so many factors seeming to weigh against a young person in a setting as complicated as an urban environment.
''There is no method for dealing with youth gangs - for which there is reliable evidence - that has had any impact, though some programs do seem to have isolated success stories,'' Dr. Miller says.
Despite such grim forecasts, scores of communities have tried programs aimed at curbing youth gang violence over the years, though few have been as comprehensive as Hartford's. Perhaps the most celebrated of the success stories is the House of Umoja in Philadelphia, where members of black youth gangs were brought together under one roof. Here, too, the emphasis is placed on the development of cultural pride and identity.
Those involved in the Hartford project are especially confident because commitment to the program extends to every part of the community. The original Street Youth Committee formed to combat the problem included 21 members representing different agencies that had expressed concern about the problem. They marshaled the community's resources, securing facilities and services, until the program eventually included employment, education, judicial, health, recreation, and counseling components.