Former gang leader Brenda Muse knows from experience that Lennox Middle School has all the makings of a battleground.
Surrounded by tough neighborhoods, the campus sits just blocks from Inglewood Avenue, where shootings and other gang violence are common. At the school itself, members of several rival gangs share the same classes.
Amid the mayhem on the streets, Lennox Middle School seems a sanctuary. Its grounds are well kept, the buildings graffiti-free, and, most important, the school has never had a shooting, stabbing or other violent incident in the five years since it opened.
Much of the credit, according to school officials, sheriff's deputies and students, belongs to Muse. Over the years, they say, the campus security guard and unofficial counselor to troubled youths has steered scores of students away from gangs.
"She's probably saved more lives than the Police Department just by counseling," said Meg Donohue Sanchez, an assistant principal at Lennox Middle School. "She's very pro-active and isn't afraid to jump into the middle of a fight to separate students."
In June, Muse even helped organize a community-wide graffiti "paint out" that included youths who voluntarily removed their respective gangs' graffiti.
"The middle school is neutral ground," Muse said. "School is the place to be because it's safe here."
Muse's efforts to win over at-risk students represent "a 360-degree turn" from her own troubled past, said Sheriff's Detective Herb Giron, who has known Muse since she was a Lennox grade-schooler.
"She started as a fist-fighting, street-brawling gang person," recalled Giron, assigned to the Operation Safe Streets gang detail in Lennox. "She didn't restrict her confrontations to girls from other gangs. She fought the guys, too."
Muse led her own gang of Lennox "homegirls." Her left hand still carries the tattoo "La Loca Lennox," Spanish for "Crazy Girl Lennox." An American Indian, Muse was one of seven daughters. She became a "Chicana," she said, because she was looking for an identity.
A long, faint scar on her left cheek is another reminder of her former life. She got the scar at age 16 when a boy from a rival gang slashed her in the face with a knife as she waited in a parked car.
The incident made a lasting impression. "That was enough. That was the moment I said I didn't want to die," she recalled.
She also credited sheriff's deputies from the Lennox station, who often visited her while she was in the hospital, with influencing her decision.
Today, Muse, who will turn 28 on Monday, devotes most of her time to winning over youths from her old barrio. Because she was one of them, it is easier for her to talk with, console and discipline them, she said.
Often she will counsel a youth who is related to one of her old gang friends and help with homework, a ride home or visit with parents.
"It's important because if you just have a student-teacher relationship, it's not going to go anywhere," Muse said. "Working with these kids is my life right now. I'm not doing any of this 'cause I have to, but because I want to."
She refers to her male students as "my boys," and, while patrolling the campus, is frequently stopped by children wanting to talk to her. She is affectionately called "Miss Brenda" and sports a diamond stud through her pierced right nostril.
"She's cool," said one pupil.
Pictures of students at graduation ceremonies, school outings or social events line her office. There are also memory cards--reminders of the funeral services of those she could not reach--and newspaper clippings about area shootings.
"Once they leave here, there's no 'Miss Brenda,' " said Muse, herself the mother of a 10-year-old boy. "There'll always be some that I cannot reach."
Jose, a baby-faced eighth-grader, does not have the hardened look of a gang member. Nevertheless, Jose was "jumped in," or initiated into, his neighborhood gang in the seventh grade.
Now, he said, he is struggling to get out and is one of Muse's frequent visitors.
"It's tough," Jose said. "The other gang always wants to pick fights with you."
In Muse, he said, he's found a confidante.
"When I need a ride home, she takes me," Jose said. "She takes me to lunch, she talks to me."
The attention, Muse said, is critical to building the self-esteem of the students. Every morning, she said, she tries to greet as many of the children as possible with a hug or a pat on the back.
"It makes them feel good," she said.
"If I catch them slipping" in school, Muse said, "I call Mom. I don't do it because I want to get them in trouble. I am watching out for them for their own good."