Orange County school officials still deny their campuses are plagued by growing skinhead activity despite a report issued last year indicating there are at least 100 skinheads locally who are loosely organized in about six gangs, experts told 250 educators at a symposium Thursday.
“There’s a reluctance; school board members and others don’t want to look bad,” said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission.
“I think schools have a paranoia of being labeled as a gang school, a drug school. . . . But when you identify the problem, you’re dealing with that problem and that’s good,” he said.
The commission, along with the Anti-Defamation League and the Orange County Department of Education, sponsored the 3-hour symposium to help school officials identify skinheads and to discuss what role educators can play in stopping the phenomenon that they classify as a form of gang activity.
Experts who spoke at the symposium in Costa Mesa said the number of skinheads is difficult to determine. But the Anti-Defamation League, in a report released in October, says there are about 50 skinheads in Orange County “who preach violence against blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Asians and homosexuals.” The report says there is an equal or greater number of the “non-racist variety” of skinheads.
“Not all youths with shaved heads or closely cropped hair are neo-Nazis. Indeed, there are young people who call themselves ‘skinheads’ who are anti-racist, some of whom have actually been targeted for violence by neo-Nazi skinheads,” the report says.
In Orange County, skinheads have been involved in a number of violent incidents against ethnic minorities and other groups. Last month, for example, three skinheads were suspected of stabbing and robbing a student at Loara High School in Anaheim, police said.
Earlier this year, three young neo-Nazi skinheads from Huntington Beach received the maximum penalty in a “gay-bashing” attack on a man in Laguna Beach.
Neo-Nazi or skinhead youths were suspected of burning a cross on the lawn of a black family in Westminster last July 28 because of white supremacist graffiti found on neighborhood walls. A neighbor, Gary A. Skillman, 24, of Westminster, was convicted Jan. 4 of violating federal civil rights laws in the incident.
Betsy Rosenthal, western states counsel for the ADL, said that based on police reports and telephone calls to her organization, the ADL believes that membership in skinhead organizations continues to grow nationwide as well as in Orange County. Many incidents of violence by skinheads go unreported, she said.
“We’ve gotten some complaints in Orange County and Los Angeles from parents who say their kids have been accosted by skinheads,” Rosenthal said.
Mike Fleager, a county probation officer who has become a specialist in dealing with white hate gangs, said Orange County’s growing and changing population is a big factor in their numbers.
“The physical environment of Orange County is changing,” he said. “For many people, the situation is, ‘I’m not able to move out of an undesirable neighborhood because I can’t afford a house in a desirable neighborhood.’ ”
Fleager said skinheads are often discernible by their shaved heads or short hair; tattoos, sometimes of swastikas; military flight jackets; pants rolled above boots, usually combat boots, and suspenders.
Skinheads come from all socioeconomic groups, the educators were told, but one common denominator is that their parents had poor parenting skills. Skinheads have initiation activities that involve beating up new members, and they war with non-racist skinheads and minority gangs.
They possess weapons and might be involved in offenses such as armed robbery, assaults and drugs, Fleager said.
Gus Frias, manager of the County Department of Education’s Operation Safe Schools, said the only way to combat the skinhead problem and gangs in general is to form partnerships between school officials, including teachers and even head custodians, parents and law enforcement personnel. Unity will make it easier to find solutions to a problem that most schools would rather deny exists, he said.
“You have to bring together a team so you can take the punches collectively,” Frias said. Ten Orange County school districts have formed such partnerships, he said.
The problem is broader than just stopping ongoing violence, he said. Educators and others who work with youths must try to find out why some are “seduced” by the image of belonging to gangs.
Some educators said they worry that students identify with gangs because they need to belong to something.
Curt Mellem, a campus supervisor at Buena Park High School, said skinhead activity “does exist here. It is here.”
He said some students at his school sport special rings, boots or jackets that identify them as skinheads.
Other youths imitate the dress and some behavior of gangs but may not be gang members.
Youths must be made to understand the long-term consequences to them and their families of associating with gangs, Frias said.
“Gangs are a group of persons that come together and engage in illegal activity,” he said. “Our stand is that there are no good gangs, and we have to teach them the consequences of that label.
“When is a gang member never a gang member? Never, not until his death.”