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Fighting Is Becoming the Method of Choice : Sociology: Students with a score to settle are resorting to a code of street-gang behavior that pushes them to conflict rather than talk, peers and officials say.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite the slow creep of deadly weapons into Ventura County’s schoolyards, students and school officials say there are no signs that students have begun to show more interest in backing away from fights.

In fact, students and officials echoed a point that was driven home by the fatal stabbing of a Simi Valley ninth-grader Feb. 1, and the shooting of three Westlake High students Feb. 3:

More and more, students with a score to settle are resorting to a code of street-gang behavior that pushes them to fight rather than talk.

The code says: Take no disrespect, complain to no one and don’t back down.

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Some Thousand Oaks High students stare each other down, daring each other to flinch, and indulge in threat-flinging sessions of “trash-talking,” student peer counselors there say.

In Moorpark, some girls talk behind their rivals’ backs, and rumors get blown out of proportion and erupt into screaming matches, said Mary Jo Del Campo, a Moorpark High School guidance counselor.

And in Oxnard, a multiracial group of high school students agreed in interviews that racist hatred often sparks fights that can range from slur-riddled arguments to after-school gang rumbles of 20 students or more.

The number of schoolyard fights remains relatively low, officials say.

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For instance, among the 18,000 students in Simi Valley schools, there were only 676 suspensions for fighting last year, according to school statistics.

But the severity of the fights is on the rise, students and officials said.

“Times have changed,” said Anna Merriman, an assistant principal who oversees the student-to-student counseling program at Thousand Oaks High School.

“If someone stared at me when I was 15, the very worst thing that could happen is a fistfight,” she said. “Unfortunately, today, we’re talking about their life, their safety. There are no more fair fights.”

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The types of fights in junior high differ from those in high school, said Leslie Crunelle, director of secondary education in the Simi Valley Unified School District.

“At the junior high level, it frequently starts out with play,” Crunelle said. “I bump into you playfully, or I knock your hat off playfully. You turn around and maybe not as playfully shove me back, then I come back and, all of a sudden, one of us is not playing any more.”

In high school, fights are rarer, but more serious, she said.

“They stem from situations in which at least one of the parties feels truly aggrieved,” Crunelle said. “In that sense, it’s more serious. . . . Those fights tend to come out of anger.”

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Anger builds from several sources--rivalry between social cliques or gangs, arguments over boyfriends and girlfriends, and any kind of disrespect, real or imagined, students and school officials say.

More often, kids push each other to fight by staring each other down in bouts of “mad-dogging” or just “dogging,” a game of brinkmanship borrowed from gang members, said Wayne Toscas, who oversees discipline for the Ventura Unified School District.

“I don’t think it’s an entirely new phenomenon,” Toscas said. “The fact that it continues on the school ground or in the classroom is the new phenomenon.”

Thousand Oaks student counselors Maya Kwiat, A. D. Mathur and Shannon Hermanson agreed that in clothing, behavior and music, more students are adopting gang culture.

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“The whole gangster crowd has become popular,” said Hermanson, a 16-year-old junior. “Gangs are in now.”

“They’ve got the style of dress and tough attitude,” Mathur added.

“Even the walk,” Kwiat said.

And “there’s a lot of trash-talking,” Mathur added.

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The reasons for conflicts vary. In some cases, race is the catalyst.

Charleen Morla, 16, a Filipino-American and junior at ethnically diverse Channel Islands High School, said Latino students have hurled ethnic slurs at her several times.

Dawn Harper, an African-American senior at Channel Islands, agreed that bigotry often leads to trouble.

“Name-calling, that’s how most things start,” said Harper, 18. “Sometimes it’s done jokingly. Then it might go too far, and they’ll go back and tell their friends, and they might pump it up a little bit more than what it was, and then there’s a conflict between a lot of people calling each other names.”

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Sometimes, the fights stem directly from gang rivalry, said Jose DeHaro, 19, a Channel Islands High senior.

Students say young gang members have the gang code of violence imprinted on them by friends--or by parents who either fondly remember their own gang camaraderie or just do not care what their kids do.

And gang members do not fight alone, DeHaro said.

“They won’t fight one-on-one; they all gang up with their friends,” added DeHaro, who said he joined the school’s inter-gang counseling group after punishment for his own fighting and a commercial robbery cost him a year of school.

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They do not let each other back down, he said.

“I rarely see that,” DeHaro said. “People start talking crap at them, saying that the guy chickened out.”

And sometimes, physical or verbal abuse comes from one of the oldest sources in the world--the bully.

“We’ve always had bullies in schools,” said Jean Ferguson, a youth counselor and family therapist in the Conejo Valley. “Bullying has become very cool. (It) has become a kind of elevated-hero thing. I work with the victims and I work with the bullies, and the victims are terrified.”

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Jason Williams, a 15-year-old freshman at Channel Islands High, said he is often picked on because he has one kidney and could die if he gets punched in the wrong place in a fight.

“They say, ‘There’s that handicapped sucker; let’s go wail on him,’ ” Williams said. But he said he has never been in a fight because he has just put up with the insults.

Kimberly Perry, 18, a senior at Camarillo High, said: “I personally had a problem with someone, and they just kept coming after me, bugging me, bugging me. I managed to avoid this person as much as I possibly could and, over time, it just dwindled.”

Many students said the chemistry brewing between cliques or individual rivals can start fights.

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“If you look at somebody wrong, that’s enough to start a fight,” said Pat Evans, 16, a junior and peer counselor at Camarillo High. “People are very touchy, that if you look at their girlfriend, that becomes a problem. It’s all small things.

“I don’t think people talk enough,” he added. “They just find fighting to be a way out. If you talk about things, it just makes things easier.”

“But isn’t that losing face?” asked JoAnn Ranchie, a 16-year-old Camarillo High junior. “They think talking is an easy way out of it, so they don’t talk. . . . And even talking, they’ll second-guess and not listen to what (the others) are saying.”

Volatile disputes can turn dangerous, as in the case of three Westlake High students injured by gunfire when a group of youths jumped out of cars in Thousand Oaks on Feb. 3 and attacked a group of students gathered to watch a fistfight.

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Or they can turn deadly, as in the stabbing of Chad Hubbard, 14, a student at Valley View Junior High in Simi Valley. Phillip Hernandez, 13, who reportedly had a long-running feud with the 14-year-old, has been charged with murder in the Feb. 1 slaying.

Simi Valley police often investigate tips about weapons, said Officer John St. Laurent, who patrols the schools. Often, the tips are empty talk, but sometimes teachers confiscate knives and realistic fake guns that could prove to be almost as dangerous as the real thing if they were pulled out in a fight against another armed student, he said.

While few students bring weapons to school, many more bring them to parties, students said.

“Parties are out of control here. Nobody knows who’s at their party. . . . There’s weapons, alcohol,” said Hermanson, the student peer counselor at Thousand Oaks High. “There’s a lot of knives. Knives are a dime a dozen.”

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While police and school disciplinarians work to filter weapons out of the students’ hands, and school officials try to teach new curricula of tolerance and communication, the kids often make up their own minds.

Kwiat said she approves of Thousand Oaks High programs focused on teaching students to resolve conflicts before they turn violent. But, she said, they do not help everyone.

“They’re effectively getting the information, but the people that are getting the information are not the ones who need to be hearing it,” Kwiat said. “The students who are in trouble don’t go” to the voluntary meetings, she added.

All the students agreed that the best advice they can offer to someone facing a fight is to try to talk it out first.

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“Not just talking it out, but being open to what’s said,” said Harper of Channel Islands High.

Listening is vital, said Travon Baker, an 18-year-old senior at Channel Islands.

“A lot of times (a fight) happens because one person or the other is not really willing to listen,” he said.

Most students are reluctant to tattle, but they should consider telling a teacher or parent about their trouble.

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“The kid himself should go and tell his parents the problem,” said DeHaro, of Channel Islands High. “Your friends will think bad of you, saying you’re a momma’s boy,” but parents may be able to offer advice to defuse the situation.

And parents should be willing to listen to their children, he said.

“Ask them, ‘So, how you doing? How’s it going in school?’ ” he suggested. “That’ll help bring out the problem.”

If the dispute is one-sided, the student being picked on should try to avoid the antagonist, said Kimberly Perry, of Camarillo High.

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“Every conflict I’ve ever had in high school was solved by just ignoring it,” she said.

Finally, if talk fails or a fight seems imminent, students should try to just walk away.

“Just walk away--you’ll walk away with your life,” Hermanson said. “Let’s say you lose some of the ego you have in high school, but so what?”

Avoiding Fights

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Students from three high schools--Camarillo, Channel Islands and Thousand Oaks--were asked by The Times for their advice on how to stay out of fights. This is what they suggest:

Talk it out. Whatever the disagreement, violence will not solve it, and may only bring retaliation from the other person’s friends or harsh discipline from school officials.

Listen. Try to understand the other person’s point of view, even if you do not agree with it. Be willing to admit it when you are wrong.

Do not act on rumors. Sometimes, things you hear that someone said about you or about a friend have been taken out of context. Go to the source of the information and learn the truth.

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Ignore insults or hard looks. Eventually they will stop.

Focus on the problem, not the person. Talk about the disagreement itself. Insults accomplish nothing.

Avoid bullies. If you stay away from them long enough, they will leave you alone.

Talk to a parent or teacher. They can offer you advice your friends cannot, and they may be able to intervene and give you room to talk out your disagreement with the other person.

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Ignore friends who urge you to fight. If they are truly your friends, they will respect your decision to avoid violence.


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