Schools Become Refuge From Fear, Violence

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At night, bullets fly through the air in the Santa Ana neighborhood surrounding Willard Intermediate School. Dealers lean out of car windows, hawking their wares. Gang members lay claim to street corners. It's an everyday, common sight.

"Sometimes at night, I hear the guns," said a 13-year-old girl who attends eighth grade at Willard. "But they don't scare me any more. I'm used to it."

Like thousands of children who live in the county's roughest neighborhoods, the girl's daily walk to school takes her by gang fights, street-corner drug dealers and even an occasional gun battle. For children like her, school is a safe haven, a place where gang attire is outlawed, gates and fences keep out the bad guys, and teachers and principals serve as protectors against violence.

"A lot of our kids experience a lot of violence and upheaval in their lives," said Mary Dalessi, principal at Nicolas Junior High in Santa Ana. "School is the only place where these kids have a routine."

Without school, educators say, many such children would have no role models, no rules to follow, or adults to talk to about the problems and fears they have learned to suppress. School acts as an emotional and psychological safety valve, allowing students to just be children and set aside their ordinarily street-wise demeanor.

"It's amazing what these students go through on a regular basis," said Willard Principal Howard M. Haas. "But they are resilient kids. They go to school because they want a normal day in their lives. We try to help them find a way out of those bad spots."

Teachers and principals say the children are matter-of-fact about the crime and drug dealers, often arriving at school eager to share their stories--perhaps out of a need to share their fears. Whereas students in relatively safe areas come to school with "what I did this weekend,"--tales of play and family outings--children from dangerous environments come in with reports on the weekend's tally of drive-by shootings.

The issue is sensitive and often frightening for school officials. For this report, they asked The Times to use pseudonyms to identify the students out of fear of retribution from gang members and dealers.

The students' often harrowing tales include the experiences of Lilia, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Nicolas Junior High, who lives in the Valencia Street barrio in Fullerton. In her dreams, gang members are shooting into her house, trying to kill her family. Lilia hides behind a sofa.

"I try to be quiet so they can't find me and can't kill me," Lilia said.

Sometimes, the dream becomes all too real. Lilia frequently hears shooting at night. Once, she witnessed a stabbing outside a friend's house. She shrugs and fidgets when asked if she was afraid of the gunfire. She never answers.

Such stories are endless, says Bobbi Amkenbrandt, a counselor at Nicolas who often tries to comfort the children. She has files filled with stories of children who are from broken homes and live in neighborhoods where drugs are prevalent.

"We have a generation of children who live in neighborhoods that are truly scary," Amkenbrandt said. "For them, the unusual has become the very usual."

A growing concern for school officials is that the violence is closing in on the campuses. Two weeks ago, a gunman fired at a car outside Anaheim High School during lunch period. A few days earlier, Santa Ana Unified School District Supt. Rudy M. Castruita asked for more police patrols and a street barricade near Santa Ana High School after a teacher narrowly escaped gunfire in a drive-by shooting.

"We have to act fast to make the children know that these acts of violence are not tolerated in their schools," Castruita said.

Santa Ana, along with several other school districts, have instituted broad policies outlawing gang clothing. School board trustees in the Orange Unified and Tustin Unified districts recently passed strict regulations against such attire, and Orange trustees have approved a program that would place a probation officer on high school campuses to suppress gang activity.

At Nicolas, Dalessi says the policy is strictly enforced. Like other schools in Santa Ana and other Orange County districts with similar policies, the 720 students at Nicolas are forbidden to wear certain hats, colors, or any other attire that can be even remotely associated with gangs. Those who break the rules are sent home, and repeat offenders can face expulsion.

Most of the students at Nicolas live in the surrounding neighborhoods, which include the Valencia and Orangethorpe sections near the Riverside Freeway. Fullerton police recently targeted these areas for intensive narcotics patrols and gang investigations in a program called "Operation Cleanup."

One resident of the neighborhood is 12-year-old Billy, a seventh-grader at Nicolas. His brothers, he says, are gang members, and his father is friendly with older members.

Billy says he witnessed a gang shooting a year ago while he was walking with his friend near a grocery store. Just as he walked around the corner, Billy heard shots fired. His friend was hit twice in the torso.

Billy would only say that the shooting made him nervous. But he taps a frantic beat with his feet when he shares his experience.

But at school, Billy says he doesn't feel nervous. He doesn't have to look behind his back all the time. He says the teachers make sure he doesn't have anybody to be worried about.

Still, the teachers do have a particularly frightening problem to be worried about--weapon-toting students.

According to figures compiled by the state Department of Education, there has been a 95% increase in the number of assaults with weapons in Orange County schools over the past four years. There were 43 such cases in 1985-86, compared to 84 incidents in 1988-89.

Castruita says students in Santa Ana are automatically expelled if they are caught with a weapon.

"When I first started in education 25 years ago, a kid carrying a weapon was unheard of," Castruita said. "The worse that I saw was a knife. But today, in the 1990s, teen-agers have access to guns and other (weapons) and it scares me to death. I hope and pray that our kids know the district won't tolerate it."

While the districts are doing all they can to keep guns and gangs off campus, there's little they can do about those problems on campus perimeters or students' neighborhoods.

On weekends, John, a senior at Anaheim High School, does not go to parties or to his friends' homes any more. It's too dangerous with gangs targeting rival members.

"It's got to the point now that if you go out and kick back with your friends, you can get shot," said John, a muscular 17-year-old who likes to play soccer.

School District Crime

Fiscal Year 1990 (July 1, 1989-June 30, 1990)

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Assault/ Assault/ Attack Attack Districts No Weapon Weapon Fighting Homicide Anaheim 1 0 3 0 Buena Park 2 0 2 0 Centralia 0 0 10 0 Cypress 0 0 0 0 Fountain Valley 14 0 7 0 Fullerton 31 14 115 0 Huntington Beach 10 3 22 0 La Habra 3 0 114 0 Magnolia 8 0 0 0 Ocean View 13 1 17 0 Savanna 0 0 8 0 Westminster 16 0 96 0

HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Assault/ Assault/ Attack Attack Districts No Weapon Weapon Fighting Homicide Anaheim Union 147 10 560 0 Fullerton Joint Union 19 1 175 0 Huntington Beach Union 77 1 210 0

UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Assault/ Assault/ Attack Attack Districts No Weapon Weapon Fighting Homicide Brea-Olinda 17 0 14 0 Capistrano 8 1 213 0 Garden Grove 116 7 606 0 Irvine 6 2 91 0 Laguna Beach 0 0 6 0 Los Alamitos 14 1 46 0 Newport-Mesa 66 3 86 0 Orange 88 3 227 0 Placentia 21 5 217 0 Saddleback Valley 3 0 119 0 Santa Ana 93 6 4 0 Tustin 2 0 261 0 County Totals 775 58 3,229 0

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Sex Substance Districts Offenses Robbery Extortion Abuse Anaheim 0 0 0 0 Buena Park 2 0 0 2 Centralia 0 0 0 0 Cypress 0 0 0 0 Fountain Valley 1 0 2 1 Fullerton 3 1 0 4 Huntington Beach 0 0 0 3 La Habra 3 0 0 2 Magnolia 0 0 0 0 Ocean View 5 0 0 4 Savanna 0 1 0 0 Westminster 8 1 0 2

HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Sex Substance Districts Offenses Robbery Extortion Abuse Anaheim Union 7 10 2 53 Fullerton Joint Union 3 0 0 59 Huntington Beach Union 22 1 1 99

UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Sex Substance Districts Offenses Robbery Extortion Abuse Brea-Olinda 0 0 0 1 Capistrano 2 0 2 56 Garden Grove 10 7 0 45 Irvine 4 0 0 30 Laguna Beach 0 0 0 5 Los Alamitos 1 0 0 11 Newport-Mesa 4 24 3 77 Orange 9 0 3 39 Placentia 0 0 0 36 Saddleback Valley 0 0 0 39 Santa Ana 25 1 1 9 Tustin 1 0 0 35 County Totals 110 46 14 612

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Posession Destructive Property Loitering/ Districts ofWeapons Devices Crimes Trespassing Anaheim 4 1 242 0 Buena Park 2 1 19 3 Centralia 1 0 98 0 Cypress 0 0 15 0 Fountain Valley 1 1 138 3 Fullerton 14 6 294 60 Huntington Beach 6 4 59 0 La Habra 2 2 36 4 Magnolia 11 8 18 24 Ocean View 2 2 110 9 Savanna 2 3 18 0 Westminster 13 6 96 25

HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Posession Destructive Property Loitering/ Districts ofWeapons Devices Crimes Trespassing Anaheim Union 41 34 372 21 Fullerton Joint Union 16 8 419 2 Huntington Beach Union 27 30 726 122

UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Posession Destructive Property Loitering/ Districts ofWeapons Devices Crimes Trespassing Brea-Olinda 4 2 113 0 Capistrano 15 18 273 1 Garden Grove 75 27 730 18 Irvine 9 5 296 12 Laguna Beach 0 0 10 0 Los Alamitos 6 2 152 7 Newport-Mesa 6 3 107 35 Orange 47 15 284 12 Placentia 20 8 214 4 Saddleback Valley 7 3 404 1 Santa Ana 22 6 837 51 Tustin 10 5 161 1 County Totals 363 200 6,241 415

Source: California State Board of Education

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