It is 10 o'clock on a Friday night and at high schools all over Long Beach the mood is precarious.
"I've got a joint in my pocket," says a teen-ager to his friend, both perched atop Kawasaki motorcycles about to roar out of the parking lot at Millikan High School where the homecoming game has just been won. "Where shall we go?"
On the street next to the campus, cars full of teen-agers rumble back and forth, gunning their engines and honking their horns. "You can see them drinking in the cars," said Chuck LaReaux, an off-duty police officer and one of 10 private security guards assigned to Millikan on this particular night. "We've had some fights out here, some real beauties. (The kids) are looking for something to do."
Enter Bethany Baptist Church, a wholesome setting nearby where a gathering of a different sort is just getting started. Here the menu consists of pizza, soft drinks and ice cream. On the program are varsity yell leaders, a school rally club, arm-wrestling contests, videos taken at local high schools and a short rap session about Jesus.
The only problem, according to officials of the Long Beach Unified School District, is that rallies like this one have been skirting the law by improperly involving public schools. Organizers deny any impropriety.
"We're keeping them off the streets," said Paul Copeland, youth pastor at Grace Brethren Church of Long Beach, which, along with Bethany Baptist and two other area churches, sponsors the weekly after-football gatherings sometimes called the 5th Quarter. Now in their third year, he said, the church rallies attract from 500 to 1,500 students a week.
"Our main purpose is to provide a wholesome environment that is drug- and alcohol-free" while demonstrating to teen-agers that church can be fun, Copeland said. "They think it's all stained glass and organ music and boring. We want them to know that it's a life style."
School district officials say they are definitely in favor of alternative activities to keep high school students out of trouble on Friday nights. What bothers them, they say, is that the gatherings are promoted through the distribution of as many as 8,000 unapproved flyers each week on high school campuses. They say that violates the doctrine of church-state separation.
In addition, they say, they are concerned that church personnel routinely enter high school campuses to interview students on videotape for replay during the Friday night rallies.
And, school officials say, they are upset that dozens of official school groups--most recently the Wilson High School varsity yell squad and rally club--have performed and represented their schools at the church rallies without district approval and in violation of district policy.
"They simply can't do that," said Ed Eveland, assistant superintendent in charge of secondary schools. "They cannot go out on their own to perform anywhere they feel like performing. When we allow that to happen, we are sanctioning that activity . . . and I don't care how healthy it may be, we cannot be involved in anything that is church-connected."
Although the church-sponsored rallies have been going on for three years, Eveland said he was not aware of them until this week, when a reporter writing about the rallies contacted him. As a result, Eveland said, he issued a memo to high school principals on Wednesday strongly reiterating the district's policy that church-related flyers may not be distributed on public school campuses and that official school performing groups may not appear as such at church-sponsored gatherings.
Copeland said the memo could be fatal to the Friday night programs, which depend largely on school performing groups to achieve their effect. He also disputed Eveland's claim that the rallies impinge on constitutional prohibitions. "This is legal hogwash," he said.
In all cases, Copeland said, the school performing groups have appeared with the approval of their campus sponsors. But at Wilson, Aracely Mora--the campus activities specialist--said she was unaware that her school's groups had performed at the church. "Anything where our students are asked to perform has to be cleared through my office and I in turn have to clear it through the superintendent," she said. "This was not cleared."
John Kashiwabara, president of the Board of Education, said Tuesday he is concerned about the rallies. "Separation of church and state is the law of the land," Kashiwabara said. "This is a touchy area."