The schoolyard chatter was broken abruptly by shouted threats and angry glares. Two groups inched toward each other, as many as 80 teen-agers altogether.
A gang fight was erupting at Granada Hills High School.
Police cars arrived within minutes, but that made things worse. Students began screaming at the officers.
Then the school's principal did something unexpected. She asked the police to leave and summoned Joan Lewis, a counselor who looks about as menacing as your favorite aunt. Lewis quietly coaxed the leaders of each faction into a nearby classroom.
"Everyone was real tense," recalled Jimmy, 18, who like other gang members spoke on the condition that his last name not be published. "But we finally started talking and found out that we were fighting because one guy bumped into another guy and didn't say sorry.
"We thought, 'We were going to fight over that?' " Jimmy said. "We thought, 'Someone could have died over that?' "
The bloodless resolution, which occurred last year, was a watershed for Lewis and the work she does at Granada Hills High.
The 48-year-old counselor has been wrestling with a dangerous side effect of school busing: Each morning, students are bused in from countless neighborhoods across the city. Some of the students are gang members and are at war with each other on turf as distant as 30 miles away.
Push them together on the same campus, mix in several local gangs, and you have a pressure cooker, police say.
At Granada Hills High, located in a peaceful, middle-class neighborhood, gang members from as many as 30 "sets" arrive for class each day: San Fers from nearby; East Coast Crips and Piru Bloods from over the hill. There are white gangs and Asian-American gangs. Black gangs and Latino gangs. Lewis says that keeping track of rivalries and alliances can be dizzying.
But she has made it her job to keep tabs on and counsel all the gang members at her school, work that she does with her 22-year-old daughter, Lori.
"The kids joked about us working with gangs," Joan Lewis said. "Two little white ladies."
Lewis goes about her task talking to these students, cajoling, bargaining with them. She said she doesn't preach, doesn't order them to quit their gangs. She simply asks them to stay cool on campus. She asks them to obey school rules and leave their guns and knives and gang colors at home.
It's a two-way deal. In return, Lewis helps "her kids" get along with teachers and keep up with homework. "I won't lie and say their grades are the best," she said. She puts in a good word with their probation officers. She helps them find jobs, if that's what they want.
And her kids--150 boys and 50 girls--say they respect that trade-off. If someone sneaks a gun on campus, someone else whispers in Lewis' ear. If a fight is brewing, she hears it through the grapevine. When a gang member transfers in, she finds out who he is and who his enemies are.
"Even the hardest-core gangster will let her know when something's going to happen," said Luis, 17, of Sun Valley. "To me, this school is my safe place. You don't have to worry about watching your back all the time."
Dozens of schools across Los Angeles are locked in mortal battle to quell gang violence. Many deal primarily with local gangs. But Lewis and Granada Hills High are extraordinary in forging a working, if delicate, truce between so many gangs from so many areas.
"That school is known as a neutral turf," said Kwasi Geiggar, who places paroled teen-agers in schools throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District. "I don't see it anywhere else."
Police and school district officials also praise the program. Yet many doubt that it could be duplicated on other campuses. Lewis, they say, is the key.
"No one can dislike Joan Lewis," said Anne Falotico, the principal who has given her free reign.
Geiggar explains Lewis' success, echoing the words of others: "When she looks at you with that motherly look, you feel that she wants you to do well, to survive. She has no racism in her, and the kids sense that. That's why they respond."
Lewis hasn't worked miracles. She said she hopes that, if gang members can learn to follow rules and talk out problems within the group, maybe they'll find a way out of street gangs.
She admits the chances are slim.
Her kids get on the bus every afternoon and return to violent neighborhoods. Some get killed. Last week, one was arrested for attempted murder, she said. He wrote to Lewis from his cell.
"I want you to tell everyone to listen to you when you tell them something," his letter said. "I never listened. Now I'm looking at five years of my life at jail."
Lewis insists that she never intended to work with gang members. Three years ago, she was counseling students about pregnancy, drugs and alcohol, which she continues to do on a limited basis. She got to know several members of a large and old Latino gang called 18th Street.
"As their home boys would transfer into school," she said, "they'd bring them into the office."
Lewis held informal meetings with this small group. The original members recruited students from other gangs. "It got to be like a club," said one student. As the group grew, Lewis enlisted Lori, who was already a teaching assistant at the high school.
Now, the meetings at Granada Hills High are a weekly fixture and have grown so large that they must be split into segments. Not everyone who attends is a gang member. Some merely have friends who are in gangs. Others live in gang neighborhoods and are threatened from both sides: They might easily slip into criminal life or be attacked by rival sets who assume they are gang members because of where they live.
"They face tremendous pressure," Lori Lewis said, "even if they're not in the streets banging."
The meetings can be simple talk sessions. Sometimes students listen to a guest speaker. Sometimes the gatherings serve as a peace summit between heated rivals.
"The kids are used to settling things with their hands," Joan Lewis said. "We have to work on them. They've had to learn new ways." The counselors have had to learn, too.
Joan Lewis and her daughter say they now recognize the subtle signs of gang membership: the baseball caps worn sideways, the dollar-sign earrings, blue or red shoelaces. Many Los Angeles schools prohibited such dress long ago, but Granada Hills High was slow to catch on.
The Lewises recognize when students are throwing signs--using hand signals to identify their gangs. The Outlaw Bloods gesture with an OK sign. The 62nd Street Crips use the two-fingered peace sign.
Most importantly, mother and daughter have found it futile to bad-mouth gangs.
"The kids just laugh at us," Joan Lewis said. "When you start that way, it kind of closes down the communication."
So she and her daughter have settled for keeping the peace.
Lori Lewis, in particular, watches the campus for graffiti. When a gang marks its territory on school walls, she summons known members and threatens them with detention unless they clean off the spray-painting.
Not long ago, a student named Frank got caught marking the name of his Los Angeles gang on a bathroom wall. The 17-year-old is on probation and, were it not for Lori Lewis, probably would have ended up back at youth camp for his transgression. But the counselor helped Frank strike a deal with school administrators: He agreed to stay after class to help the janitors.
"It's embarrassing to clean after school," he said, "but some of us can't afford to get suspended."
Lori Lewis also interviews new arrivals, suspected gang members who transfer from another school or a youth detention camp. "I ask them, 'Are you claiming a neighborhood?' 'Is there anyone here that you're going to have a problem with?' "
Any such problems are confronted face to face. Rivals are brought together in the same room to hammer out a treaty.
"If he killed somebody in your family, that's not something that can be worked out," Luis said. "We tell her, 'Look, I'm going to have to fight him.' "
In such cases, Lori Lewis has the new student sent to another school.
The Lewises do their work from an office at the front of campus. Students stop by to visit during free periods. They stroll past the front counter and sit by the secretary's desk. They gossip and laugh. Joan Lewis makes them answer the phones while they hang out.
The demeanor is casual, but the possibility of violence lingers in everyone's mind. Joan and Lori Lewis always carry walkie-talkies. At group meetings, they sit near a telephone. Lori Lewis has been caught in the middle of fights. "My hair was pulled and that sort of thing," she said.
Though stripped of their weapons and colors, the Lewises' "kids" remain unmistakably gang members. They strut. They glare. Their arms are marked by tattoos. At a recent meeting, when a speaker suggested that only cowards join gangs, heads shook in defiance. Eser, 18, hissed and cursed from the back of the room.
"Sometimes gangs help you out," he said afterwards. "When you run away from home, you go to your home boys. If you get in a fight with your girlfriend, you go to your home boys. They understand you better than your family."
Joan Lewis accepts this bond--a normal teen friendship projected against abnormal viciousness. Lewis says she is willing to love gang members, to care about them.
"She talks on our level," said Husani, 17, of Pacoima. "We need people like that."
The group responds by enforcing Lewis' campus rules as vigilantly as they defend their home turf.
"We keep the violence down," Luis said. "Some guys go, 'No, I'm too hard for this. I'm a down gangster.' But the rest of us get on him. Sooner or later, he'll realize."