They're known in the neighborhood for the colors they wear--putty and white--and they often move in groups.
But they aren't members of a street gang. Far from it. They are the adolescent girls who attend the Marlborough School, a century-old private school in Hancock Park.
Nonetheless, street gangs were what the Marlborough students were interested in Wednesday, when police talked to them, their parents, teachers and alumnae about where gangs operate, whom they victimize and how residents can protect themselves and their children.
About 75 people watched slides of prison reunions of beefy, tattooed gang members and heard stories of violent gang initiation rites at a meeting sponsored by the alumnae association and the Wilshire Police Division. It all seemed quite distant from the small auditorium with the silver punch bowl. Some of the questions reflected that fact.
"For your statistics of gang members, are you including members of really wealthy gangs? They go to private schools and don't look like gang members but they beat up people," asked a student wearing the Marlborough pleated skirt and white blouse.
Police Lt. Brad Merritt, commanding officer of the gang-enforcement unit covering the western half of Los Angeles, explained that his officers focus on the city's 50,000 street gang members who commit murders, robberies and other serious crimes. He said his staff is small and must focus on what it considers the most serious criminals.
The bullying gangs who intimidate others at private schools and dances "are a bunch of thugs, a bunch of punks but they're not street gangs," Merritt said.
Marlborough School may seem like an unlikely place for a discussion on street gangs. It is the oldest private girls' school in Southern California and sits on four tree-covered acres at the corner of 3rd Street and Rossmore Avenue. Tuition will be $9,350 a year in September. Among the school's more prominent graduates are U.S. Trade Representative Carla Anderson Hills and actress Anne Archer.
School and alumnae leaders said they sponsored the meeting because gangs are a pressing issue for the city as a whole. The school has never been confronted by gangs, said Headmistress Barbara Wagner, but students talk about them and parents worry about them.
"It was definitely seen as part of the community, whether that means the community of Los Angeles or the community of Hancock Park," Wagner said.
The issue raised most often at the three-hour meeting was graffiti. People asked how to differentiate between gang graffiti and common vandalism. Dr. Timothy Gogan, a dentist and member of the Larchmont Village Assn., said he gets nervous when he paints over graffiti he suspects was left by gang members.
"What happens if they see me doing that? Are they going to shoot me?" he asked.
Police said most graffiti in the Larchmont, Hancock Park, Windsor Square area is left by taggers--lone vandals who spray-paint illegible personal symbols to leave their mark.
Gang graffiti looks different from tagger graffiti, police said, because gangs usually draw the gang name in oversized letters and each member signs the drawing legibly in his gang nickname.
Another man asked how boys should respond if they are harassed by gangs in shopping malls. Police and community workers who interact with gangs encouraged parents to instruct their sons to ignore it and walk away.
"It's important to break that contact, whether it means walking into a store or leaving the mall and coming back later," said Capt. J. I. Davis, commanding officer of the Wilshire Division, which patrols the school's neighborhood.
Both the police and the community outreach workers said their budgets are tight and their efforts understaffed. They said they need residents to help them by reporting gang activity, keeping tabs on their children and getting involved to create a sense of extended family to children in the community.
Police and gang outreach workers praised the school for acknowledging that gangs are an issue for everyone in Los Angeles, regardless of the neighborhood.
"Gang members are part of our community. They're our children, our nieces, our nephews, our grandchildren," said Ed Turley of the Community Youth Gang Service Project, which tries to prevent gang killings through outreach and mediation. "You just heard it said that there are gang members south of here, north of here, east of here and west of here. It kind of puts you on an island."