Even at a suburban school like Northridge, which has a reputation as a safe campus, the threat of violence casts a shadow over every aspect of the school day.
It isn’t just the five campus aides stalking the halls with walkie-talkies flapping at their belts, or the random metal detector searches.
You can see how violence has changed behavior in the way the gym teachers flinch, fearing a bullet, when they hear a car backfire on Schoenborn Street. The discovery of broken glass in the teachers’ parking lot causes a scramble to find out whether someone’s car had been stolen. After two were stolen the previous year in the back lot, teachers stopped parking there.
Campus authorities have even established specific emergency procedures, a kind of school civil defense plan, for fear of their own neighbors. If Principal Beryl Ward came on the intercom and announced that “Jesus Weinstein” was needed at the office, the teachers would know they should close and lock their doors. The code was later changed to a warning that an exterminator was spraying outside so the students would not be surprised to see teachers locking their rooms like bomb shelters.
Those procedures were invoked on Feb. 22, one of the bloodiest school days of the year. Michael Ensley was shot and killed in a hallway at Reseda High School, just two miles from Northridge. It sounded like a gang matter, and because some of the students at Northridge had siblings at Reseda, it was feared that trouble there might spread.
“Today is a day to keep kids in classes,” Ward told her assistants during a meeting in her conference room. “They shouldn’t be out on passes.”
“We’re pretty much on alert,” replied Kenny Jan, a campus aide. The gates were all locked.
At the same time, two other shootings involving former students helped raise tensions on campus.
In one, which occurred the same day Ensley was shot, Rocio Delgado, a former Northridge student attending nearby Cleveland High School, was shot and killed during a gang confrontation off campus. The first boy arrested, Aureliano Vasquez, had been a Northridge student two years before. The story among the students at Northridge, confirmed by police, was that Rocio got hit accidentally when the intended victim ducked.
“The girl who was killed was a good student,” Jan said. “I’m just trying to think who will be next?”
Vasquez and two others were awaiting trial.
The third killing involved Ray Haney, a former student who police said shot a member of a rival gang at a Reseda intersection a few days before the other killings. Jan said the confrontation occurred because the victim had crossed out the graffiti of another tagging crew.
The shootings sent the teachers at Northridge into a period of reflection. “Look around here,” Marilyn Hayes told her Preferred Activity and Advisory class soberly. “Someone here may kill someone.”
She was visibly shaken during an after-school staff meeting in the library. “What are we doing wrong?” she asked her friend, Patty Suydam.
Suydam didn’t have an answer. “In the last week,” Suydam said of the shootings, one of which involved Some school officials feel that learning must take a back seat to surviving.
several suspects, “eight of our former students have been involved in murder, either as murderers or victims. My stomach hurts.”
As the teachers filed out after the meeting, someone said she didn’t remember Haney, the suspect in the tagging incident.
“He was voted most huggable,” reminded Sue Castaneda.
The students, however, didn’t share the same sense of horror about the violence welling up around them. A group gathered at lunch one day after the Reseda High School shooting to discuss their feelings, which were that it was too bad but nothing particularly out of the ordinary.
“It always happens,” said Joe Garcia, 13. “It’s no big deal.”
A boy named Luis saw the dead girl’s body on the street. “I never saw a dead person before,” he said, with a touch of excitement in his voice. “Blood was dripping out of her mouth.”
But some students were willing to admit that incidents such as the Reseda shooting worried them. “You’re scared because you don’t know who’s going to have a gun in their backpack,” said Solomon Atai, 13.
The man the teachers looked to to keep things calm on campus was Jan, 22. The staff tended to treat him with the same kind of deferential respect, even though he was younger and less educated, that they would a real police officer.
There was a bit of bluster in him too, like a cop who claims to know more than he can say, which was fitting because Jan’s dream was to be a police officer.
The day after seven rooms were broken into in November, and paint was tossed on desks, the American flag and the trophy that Mary Patrick was given for coaching the academic decathlon, one teacher after another sought Jan out for reassurance.
“Get their asses, Kenny,” said Susie Shapiro. Teachers felt misused by the break-ins in the same way that a burglary victim feels violated.
“I’m going to nail them,” Jan assured them.
Meanwhile, two detectives from the school district’s Police Department went throughout Room 251 dusting jars with a small brush and spreading cellophane tape on other surfaces, looking for fingerprints. “We got some lifts,” said one of the detectives. “But fingerprints are overrated. If kids don’t have criminal records, there’s nothing to compare.”
A couple of days later, the detectives returned after Jan went over and chatted with some of the high school dropouts who hung out across the street, telling them he had a fingerprint. One of the young men started talking. “We didn’t do much,” he said, according to Jan.
School police descended on an apartment building, and by the time Detective Jerry Timms arrived, they had several young men in T-shirts lined up against a wall.
“Who broke into the school?” Timms asked a boy named Raul, who wore a silver earring. Timms was a tall, laconic man in a suit.
“A lot of guys here,” replied Raul.
“Why was your street name painted on the wall?” Timms persisted.
Timms couldn’t break him, but he figured that he had enough on him anyway. He found out that Raul was going to court on another case. He had been found with a knife on his old high school campus.
Jan felt good. “It’s a big success,” he said.
Jan had not developed a thick skin about violence. When he met failure, as in the case of a boy who shot and killed himself, he took it home with him. “What bothers me the most,” he said, “is it hasn’t affected his friends that much.”
He said he had been threatened by gang members for asking too many questions and claimed that he would put his life on the line for a student.
On a desk in the snack bar, he kept a small treasure given to him by some students he had helped. It was a small plaque reading, “The Best Campus Aid Ever.”
Then, late in the year, Kenny Jan suddenly resigned.
Campus officials said money was missing from the Coke machine that was locked in a cage by the gym. The city attorney’s office said Jan was charged with misdemeanor theft and awaiting trial.
Many on the school staff were thunderstruck.
It seemed a cruel irony that a man who had worked with kids and urged them to stay out of trouble was facing criminal prosecution. Efforts to reach Jan for comment were unsuccessful, but his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Tom Gordon, said Jan had pleaded not guilty.
Northridge is doing a number of things to combat violence. There is the Jeopardy program, which is designed to steer kids who might be attracted to gangs into after-school athletic programs.
A second program, targeting kids who have faced violence and drug problems at home, is called Impact. A federally funded crisis intervention initiative, the program works like group therapy.
“We hear all the time about a relative or friend getting shot,” said Joe Boss, the English teacher who runs the program. “We had about 10 kids in the first semester whose friends or relatives were shot in a drive-by.”
The school holds several parent nights each year. The one in the winter semester was scheduled to discuss gangs and drugs.
About 150 people attended the program in the auditorium, two-thirds of them sitting in the Spanish-speaking section.
Two police officers from the Devonshire Division ticked off statistics about gang violence in Los Angeles. There are 950 gangs in the city with 100,000 members, said Officer Gary Crump. Officer Henry Izzo said 90% of gang members are arrested before they turn 18, and 60% are dead or in prison by age 20.
“Why do kids join gangs?” Crump asked.
“Backup,” shouted a boy in the audience.
“You don’t need backup if you don’t dress as a gang member,” Izzo replied testily.
“The way kids dress is putting them in danger,” Izzo added. He mentioned Raiders, Kings and White Sox caps, belt buckles hanging down, pants four sizes too big. Many kids say they wear these things for fashion and that it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with gangs, but Izzo wasn’t buying it.
“This is a military uniform. The war will go on until parents take control again and stop this,” he said pointedly.
As the meeting broke up, a boy named Henry Vallejo walked out of the auditorium in a Georgetown shirt. “I’m going to wear it,” he said, no matter what the police say.
His father had a different reaction. “This is going to be eliminated tonight,” said Santiago Vallejo. “I’m going to take it away from him whether he likes it or not."*