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Gang Tension : At School, Survival Comes First

IN THE CROSSFIRE: L.A.'S GANG CRISIS. One of a Series

February 05, 1989|JUDY PASTERNAK | Times Staff Writer

In theory, Edwin Markham Intermediate School is neutral ground. Crips territory stretches to the east, past a low, graffiti-slashed wall and the Southern Pacific railroad tracks. Bloods claim the turf to the west. Often they parade by the school on bikes or in cars, waving red bandanas--their "rags."

From both sides, more than 1,600 children arrive for class each weekday. Sixth- through eighth-graders, and a few dozen ninth-graders in special programs, pass abruptly from the troubled neighborhoods of Watts to 24 acres of classic campus architecture.

But even at Markham, with its low-slung brick buildings and its grassy quad, the gangs cannot be left behind. At Markham, "Everybody gets confronted and everybody has to deal with it," says ninth-grader Arnold Gordon. (Like all of the current students in this article, his name has been changed.)

Any Inner-City School

This is the story of Markham's fall semester, which ended Friday--a story that could have unfolded at any number of inner-city schools in Los Angeles.

Life at Markham has been a daily campaign to preserve a bastion of civility amid the subtle tensions of gang culture, a constant game of what-might-happen-next. Teachers sermonize against gangs and try, with varying degrees of success, to get lessons across. Parents and neighbors escort 12- and 13-year-old charges to and from school. Administrators struggle to sift real dangers from imagined ones.

And students often opt for survival strategies that prevent them from taking full advantage of what school has to offer:

--Fear of Crips classmates propels Franklin Jenkins away from a physical education class and over a fence.

--Teewana Miller refuses to eat lunch--too much turmoil, too much risk--at the cafeteria. She is fueled instead by candy from the school store.

--Eighth-grader Alfred Hill says, "I get fails that I don't deserve," because he cannot concentrate in class. "Instead I think: Are they going to jump me after school?"

--Dwayne McDaniel brings a screwdriver to class because a couple of students asked him if he was a Blood. "I have to defend myself," he says.

Adolescent years are difficult for any child, but at Markham, the usual confusions are compounded. For most Markham students, who attended elementary school in their own neighborhoods, intermediate school is their first sustained exposure to children from other gangs' turf. At an age when many youngsters are making decisions about their relationship to the neighborhood gang, also known as a "set," there is suddenly a reason to join: a need for protection.

"Gangbangers" make up a significant minority--10% by the administration's estimate; students put the figure closer to 30%. A typical Markham student would not belong to a gang but would certainly know and even be friendly with a classmate who does. Such relationships can be hazardous.

In class, gangbangers whisper greetings ("Hey, Cuz" among the Crips or "Hey, Blood" among the Bloods). They hiss insults to rivals. They "throw signs"--bending fingers to form "C," for Crip, or "CK," for Crip Killer, "B" for Blood, or "BK" for Blood Killer. Between classes, they threaten those in clothes that feature enemy gang colors, or those who simply live in enemy gang neighborhoods. They stare and shove and step on shoes.

Campus Police

The containment effort is omnipresent. Security aides clutch walkie-talkies; two school policemen carry .38-caliber revolvers and Mace. At the eighth-grade welcoming assembly, an assistant principal offers this advice: "It is insane to run over whenever there's some fight going on. . . . This is not a Saturday morning cartoon. . . . Are you aware that most of the people killed have not been in gangs, they have been innocent bystanders?"

The principal, Hal Kimbell Jr., devotes a lot of time to gang control. Before and after school, he drives the streets near the campus and urges others in the community to do the same. Operation Safe Corridors, he calls it. He works out schemes to catch intruders and puzzles over the dress code.

"If we didn't have to worry about this and could concentrate on education, think how much we could do," Kimbell says.

But he does have to worry. Most tough-talking kids merely hope to gain a gang's acceptance; in general, they are too young to be gang leaders. But they still can be dangerous at school. Kimbell and his security staff wonder what the diminutive "gangsters" might do to impress the older Crips loitering on the tracks, the hard-core Bloods hanging out across the street. And they worry whether older boys will decide to avenge slights against their younger brothers, cousins and hangers-on inside the school fence.

Innocent Victim

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