Parents in South-Central Los Angeles cannot allow gang killings and neighborhood violence to interfere with their children’s education. It is understandable that some students and parents at Jordan High School are boycotting the school because of the lack of safety from gang violence in and around it, but that is not a solution. In fact, boycotting compounds the problems by sending the wrong signal, one of capitulation to the lawless elements in the community, and by eliminating the only avenue young people have to escape the prospect of a bleak future and the deprived life that makes gangs attractive.
Violence such as Jordan is experiencing is also occurring at other schools in Southern California. In many schools there are black, Latino and white gangs whose violence invades the school grounds, causing fights and disturbances regularly, and expulsions and arrests. Even where gang disturbances do not take place on school grounds, the effect of neighborhood violence pervades the schools. Drive-by shootings and killing of children and pregnant women are traumas to students, parents and school staff.
After these tragedies, schools must organize teams of counselors and other social service professionals to deal with the trauma, with the consequence that there is little time for education. Frightened children are not attentive students. As the violence escalates, more educational resources go to defray these expenses. The financial, educational and emotional costs continue to rise. Recent polls report that citizens are becoming more pessimistic about our collective ability to deal with gang violence. The Jordan boycott illustrates that we have permitted our fear to immobilize us and to cause us to retreat. However, we are impotent in this crisis only if we see ourselves as helpless.
Children must remain in school. The effort must be to fortify the schools, not to weaken them. We cannot yield to the gangs. We must reclaim the territory. To give in to the mindless violence is to tighten the noose already choking the inner city.
What is to be done? The lack of easy answers is a reality. The seeds that sprouted in gang problems, drugs and criminality were sown long ago by our society’s failures. But the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Our first suggestion is that parents of Jordan High School students in particular seize upon the offer of school officials to provide transportation to and from school to enable students to avoid gangs that collect in the streets. Another partial solution is to provide funds for the expansion of after-school programs. By providing recreational, tutorial and personal-growth opportunities, we can help students develop alternatives to becoming involved in gangs. Revenue spending limits must be raised so that after-school programs can reach every school, not just the 10 locations in the L.A. school district where they are now operating. Special state funds should be provided for after-school and child-care programs in all areas that need them.
We must also commit resources to focus on remedial education and we must earmark funds for programs specially tailored for minority males who compose the gangs. Labor statistics show that these young men have no training and, therefore, few work opportunities. No wonder gang membership is attractive. We must also commit resources to broaden job training so that every young person who needs a job will be able to get one. We must act immediately to outlaw the sale and possession of semi-automatic weapons, which provide a readily accessible means of killing for the gangs. We need community block programs for youth so they can be taught to respect their neighborhoods and living space. Finally, we must support the schools with funds to change the curriculum to emphasize drug education, and to teach productivity, not destruction.
In her book “Within Our Reach” Lisbeth B. Schorr, a lecturer in social medicine and health policy at Harvard Medical School, examined a variety of social problems to see what would work in turning young people around. She noted that the programs that are most successful offer a broad spectrum of services and recognize the full context of a child’s environment. She also notes that the relationships established with the helping person, whether professional or voluntary, are of primary significance. Where people care, programs can be made to work.
According to a 1986 Louis Harris poll, three-quarters of America supports higher taxes to provide for more child care and education. In designing these programs, we must be prepared to defend against those who call this “throwing money at problems” that are hopeless. We think spending money along with devoting human resources to solve problems is an idea whose time has come again. But this time, let us spend it with a plan.
We cannot give in to terrorists, whether international or on the streets of Los Angeles. Children must be kept in school. The anger and the energy of parents must be focused on the conditions in and out of the schools to help forge short- and long-term solutions. The community needs to claim ownership of all of our schools. Most of all, we must acknowledge that the gang problem present in some parts of the Los Angeles area is the problem of the entire community and one that must be resolved by the entire community. We must commit ourselves to saving this generation of children, all of them.