The daunting handrail at Belmont High School near downtown Los Angeles draws skateboarders from such places as Hollywood, Manhattan Beach and Marina del Rey.
And Sacramento. Texas. Even New York.
“We’re not even sure if those guys spoke English,” recalled Mike Parker, a Belmont counselor.
Propelled by the Internet and the can’t-top-this mantra of skateboarding culture, some Southern California campuses are playing reluctant host to amateur and professional skaters who come from around the country -- and the world -- to ride the asphalt and flip down stairways in emulation of the last skater there who landed the perfect “kick-flip,” “grind” or “180 front-side ollie.”
Certain mundane objects that students pass every day -- the nine-stair handrail at Belmont, a set of 20 steps at El Toro High School in Lake Forest -- are revered in the skating community.
“You could do a trick no one’s seen before on a certain rail in a place like Ohio,” said Casey Morrissey, 23, who has been skating for nine years. “But if you do it on the Belmont rail, it makes you stand out because you’ve done a really gnarly trick on a rail that’s famous.”
For a small group of schools, star power further builds their reputations as “the spot” to skate. Professionals such as Ryan Sheckler and Andrew Reynolds have been spotted practicing at Hollywood High School. Spike Jonze, director of “Being John Malkovich,” shot part of his skateboard film “Yeah Right!” at Belmont.
The popularity of these schools has left administrators bemused and chagrined. They say skaters elicit complaints from neighbors and tear up benches and rails when they “grind” -- skateboarder vernacular for sliding across a surface on the board’s axles.
Administrators also worry about the risk of serious injury in a sport that almost inevitably involves skin-splitting, bone-breaking falls.
“If those kids take those stairs and take it the wrong way,” said Don Redifer, a dean at Belmont, “you’re looking at broken heads, broken backs, broken legs.”
California has been the epicenter of skateboarding ever since surfers in the early 1950s took a hacksaw to roller-skate wheels and attached them to 2-by-4 boards. Of the estimated 13 million skateboarders in the United States, about 1.5 million live in California, said Miki Vuckovich, executive director of the Tony Hawk Foundation.
And ever since skaters discovered that the varied terrain of schools -- flat ground in some spots; stairs, rails and benches in others -- was conducive to tricks and flips, administrators have struggled to keep them off campuses.
But globalization and the Internet have “made the big difference now,” said Fonna Bishop, principal at Hollywood High.
Skating magazines and DVDs featuring shots of Southern California schools now circulate in places as far away as Russia, Japan and New Zealand. Skaters can join online communities where their peers from around the world list and rank their favorite areas to skate, complete with photos and directions.
Meanwhile, the proliferation of moderately priced video cameras has made a camcorder as essential to many skaters’ arsenals as the board itself. With a camera, skaters can document that they’ve successfully landed high-flying, board-spinning tricks, or hit up certain spots. They can then upload the videos to personal websites or public ones such as YouTube.com.
Those who see the videos join the pilgrimage to the mecca of skater culture. “People come here from all over the world to look at the [Grauman’s] Chinese Theatre, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, to see the stars,” said Marko Jazbinsek, owner of Sugar Skateboard Co. in Santa Monica. “That’s how skateboarders come -- to look at their favorite skate spots.”
The migration irks administrators who already have their hands full with other problems. Many schools ban skateboarding on campus but lack the resources to patrol after school or on weekends.
If skaters have to scale a fence to get onto campus property, they can be cited for trespassing, said Mike Bowman, the school district’s deputy chief of police. A judge determines the penalty for the citation, but it can range from a stern warning to a fine, Bowman said.
Some schools have tried to make their campuses less attractive to skaters. Beverly Hills High School, which was featured in the skateboarding video game “Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland,” installed metal “acorns,” or knobs, on handrails and put ridges in asphalt to rough up a board ride.
Cheryl Plotkin, assistant superintendent of business services for the Beverly Hills Unified School District, estimated that 20 to 30 skaters came to the school on any given weekend. Now, she sees only about four or five.
Point Loma High School in San Diego, which is ranked second on a list of more than 2,000 skating sites around the country on the website www.skateboardspots.com, housed the notorious “Leap of Faith,” a jump the height of roughly two stories.
Skaters used to build speed on the Point Loma quad, vault a rail and plummet to the cafeteria patio, said Kevin Gormly, one of the school’s vice principals. Gormly became aware of the Leap of Faith when one of his students showed him a video of it on a French website. “It looked nuts,” he said.
The school has installed an elevator shaft where the skaters used to launch. Gormly said he hasn’t seen anyone attempt the Leap of Faith since then.
But skaters aren’t easily discouraged, especially with so many in Southern California striving to turn professional. Photographic proof of a successful trick at a famous skating spot can mean the difference between landing endorsement deals or languishing in the amateur ranks.
Morrissey moved to California from Duluth, Minn., a year ago to increase his chances of turning pro. On a recent night, Morrissey and about nine others climbed the fence at Belmont, lugging cameras, lights and a generator.
They illuminated the school’s renowned rail and started rolling. They spent almost two hours skating and filming before the police, perhaps tipped off by the cars parked out front, arrived and issued citations.
Carlos Mauricio, 15, a Belmont student, also was caught trespassing on another campus. He was fined $205.
But a recent Saturday morning found Carlos and a dozen other skaters in front of Hollywood High, practicing ollies and kick-flips.
Carlos pointed out that schools are deserted on weekends. “What else are you going to use [the stairs] for?” he asked as boards pitched and clattered around him.
Skaters such as Carlos protest -- and school administrators agree -- that there aren’t many readily accessible skate parks around Los Angeles. And even if there were, skater creed dictates that the best tricks aren’t the ones done on groomed ramps, but on the street.
Danny Romero, 15, a Belmont student and one of Carlos’ friends, was trying to land one of those tricks. He soared down a set of 12 stairs at Hollywood High again and again, often losing his board in mid-flight.
Finally, Danny spun 180 degrees and landed shakily, his wheels slapping pavement. His friends gave a roar of approval.
Danny, who has been skating for three years, has had his share of twisted ankles and torn flesh. His left elbow was covered with fresh pink scars.
Asked if he would go to skate parks instead of schools, he shook his head. “At skate parks,” he said dismissively, “they make you wear helmets.”