Teen-Agers Find Electronic Pager Symbol of Status

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He's not a doctor nor a lawyer, and he doesn't sell drugs. In fact, he has a part-time job as a clerk in a pet store. But for friends and family who want to reach him, 18-year-old Scott Morse is only a beep way.

For nearly two years now the Tarzana teen-ager has carried an electronic pager, a device that has found its way into the hearts and onto the waistbands of the youth of Southern California.

"It's just a new fashion thing," Morse, a Pierce College freshman, said. "It's just something to have. All my friends had them so I figured, 'Heck, I might as well get one too.' "

Some teen-agers say they wear them for the "look." Others say parents have given them the devices to keep track of them.

Whatever the reason, school and law enforcement officials report a growing number of the devices are now being used by teen-agers from the suburbs to south Los Angeles.

"It's become a status symbol for youngsters to carry pagers," said Chief Wesley Mitchell, who heads the Los Angeles Unified School District's Police Department.

"You've got young high school kids spending their allowances to get pagers so they can look important and be in the in crowd. . . . And these are kids who are not a part of the drug trade."

Until recently, in fact, a teen-ager carrying a beeper was almost automatically viewed as a drug dealer in the eyes of authorities, Mitchell said.

"The theory was the drug dealers used the young people as their deliverymen and the way in which the youngster was signaled was through a paging message," Mitchell said.

Operating on this belief, many school districts banned the devices from campuses in the mid- to late 1980s. In 1988, the California State Educational Code was amended to prohibit all "electronic signaling devices." As a result, school officials will confiscate a pager if a student is caught with one on campus.

While pagers are used by youngsters and adults in the drug trade, Mitchell said, they were never a major problem on the campuses of Los Angeles schools and the change in the educational code was largely a precautionary measure.

Today, he said, beepers are no longer necessarily a sign that a teen-ager is involved in the drug trade "because they are so affordable and so fashionable among young people."

So coveted are they that Seattle-based rapper Sir-Mix-A Lot recorded "Beepers," which praises the devices. And so fashionable that some teen-agers don't mind that the beepers don't actually beep.

"A lot of them have beepers that don't even work," said Officer Tim Harris of the Los Angeles Police Department, who also heads a community outreach program for teen-agers.

"I'll open it up and it doesn't have batteries or it's all rusted inside. . . . The extremes that they'll go to."

Some kids have even taken to wearing garage door openers because they look like pagers, Harris said.

But the beepers of many teens are functional and the reasons for having them are not so different from those stated by adults who, according to industry studies, are also using the devices in record numbers.

Ara Bekmezian, 17, of North Hollywood High was working last summer and was never at home, he said. So he purchased a beeper and now receives pages mostly from family members and close friends.

"At first they didn't want me to have it," Ara said of his parents. "But once they saw it could be useful to them, they agreed with it."

Scott Morse was 16 years old when he decided that he needed to have a beeper to keep up with the teen-age "Joneses." He purchased his first one, but not before learning the lingo and the nuances of high-tech communicating.

"Motorola makes the Bravo and the Alpha Bravo--that's what I have, one of those alphanumeric ones," he said almost proudly. "I went in and learned all about this stuff."

For Patrick Thompson, a 17-year-old high school senior, the decision to have a beeper was made from the heart.

Patrick wanted to keep up with messages from friends--"girlfriends mostly," he said with a shy smile. An honor student at North Hollywood High, Thompson saved his checks from his summer job bagging groceries to pay for his first beeper. It has raised more than a few eyebrows.

"The first question is, 'Are you selling drugs?' " he said. "The next is, 'How do you afford it?' "

Pager companies may charge as little as $13 a month to rent the devices but many require customers to be at least 18 years old and have a credit card and a driver's license. Many teen-agers reportedly rely on older friends or relatives to purchase or rent the devices, making it difficult to determine the age of users by surveys.

School officials say beepers have not caused the theft-related violence associated with athletic shoes and jackets. But at least one teen-ager's death is believed to have been caused by an argument over a beeper.

Last fall, 15-year-old Granada Hills High School student Marc Andrew Squires was fatally wounded at a party in Chatsworth. Prosecutors said Squires' beeper had been stolen and when an argument ensued between him and a youngster he suspected of having taken the device, another party-goer shot Squires in the back. He died of his injuries Thanksgiving morning.

A preliminary hearing is scheduled March 1 for Bayardo Martinez, 19, of Reseda, who has been charged with killing Squires.

"If you can get killed over a pair of tennis shoes or a Raiders jacket," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Dennis Lockfield, "I guess you can get killed over a beeper too. It's a tragic case."

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