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CHILDREN OF VIOLENCE : What Happens to Kids Who Learn as Babies to Dodge Bullets and Step Over Corpses on the Way to School?

September 03, 1989|LOIS TIMNICK | Lois Timnick is a Times staff writer. Lilia Beebe contributed to this report.

THE morning after a 19-year-old gang member was gunned down at a phone box at 103rd and Grape streets in Watts, his lifeless body lay in a pool of blood on the sidewalk as hundreds of children walked by, lunch boxes and school bags in hand, on their way to the 102nd Street Elementary School. A few months later, during recess, kindergartners at the school dropped to the ground as five shots were rapidly fired nearby, claiming another victim. On still another occasion, an outdoor school assembly was disrupted by the crackle of gunshots and wailing sirens as students watched a neighborhood man scuffle with police officers.

Terrifying occurrences such as these have brought together six youngsters, ages 6 through 11, who sit in a circle around a box of Kleenex in a colorful classroom. The children are a bit fidgety and shy at first, as a psychiatric social worker asks if anyone would like to "share" a recent event that made them sad. With hesitation, then with the words spilling out, each tells his story--pausing frequently to grab a tissue to wipe away the tears.

"They shoot somebody every day," begins Lester Ford, who is 9 and lives with his mother and brother in the vast Jordan Downs housing project across from the school. When he's playing outside and hears gunshots, the solemn child says softly, "I go in and get under the bed and come out after the shooting stops."

He says he has lost seven relatives. "My daddy got knifed when he got out of jail," Lester explains, and suddenly tears begin streaming down his face. "My uncle got shot in a fight--there was a bucket of his blood. And I had two aunties killed--one of them was pushed off the freeway and there were maggots on her."

Sitting next to Lester, 11-year-old Trevor Dixon, whose mother and father died of natural causes, puts a comforting arm around his friend. "We don't come outside a lot now," he says of himself and his twin sister. "It's like the violence is coming down a little closer."

When it's her turn, 8-year-old Danielle Glover peers through thick glasses and says matter-of-factly: "Just three people (in my family) died." At night their ghosts haunt her, she says. "I been seein' two of them."

This is grief class at the 102nd Street Elementary School, and it is one of the front lines in the battle against violence in South-Central Los Angeles and other urban war zones. Experts and mental health professionals are just beginning to learn what happens to children like Lester, Trevor and Danielle as they grow into adulthood: Even if these children of violence survive the drugs, the gangs and the shootings, they might not survive the psychological effects of the constant barrage.

Though therapists are finding encouraging signs of resiliency, they believe that no child who is victimized, witnesses violent crime or simply grows up in its maelstrom escapes unscathed. Despite a fragmented and sometimes underfunded approach, these researchers are developing therapies to address the problem.

Two years ago, 102nd Street school principal Melba Coleman, the school guidance counselor and the psychologist had seen some children regress to bed-wetting, others become overly withdrawn or hostile and good students struggle to concentrate. They called on the Los Angeles Unified School District's mental health center, and social worker Deborah Johnson, to develop a way to help the kids overcome their experiences.

So far, 30 children have participated in the weekly hourlong class, which is thought to be the first regular grief and loss program for elementary school students in the nation. They are encouraged to talk about life, death and ways to keep safe in an unsafe world. The hope is that, by sharing their thoughts and emotions with others, the children will come to terms with their feelings of loss, anger and confusion before long-term, irreversible problems develop. And it seems to be working.

Says Kentral Brim, 10, whose two older brothers were killed and who barely escaped injury himself during a gang fight that broke out at Martin Luther King Jr. / Drew Medical Center: "I was getting mad and fighting." With the group's help, the neatly dressed, polite young boy says, "I settled down."

SETTLING DOWN IS hard in South-Central Los Angeles, in the shadow of the famous Watts Towers and within a few blocks of four squalid public housing projects. Sleepless nights are punctuated by gunshots, sirens and hovering police helicopters. Liquor stores are routinely robbed. Children as young as 6 are recruited as drug-runners. Some babies' first words and gestures are the names and hand signs of their parents' gangs. The very color of one's T-shirt can determine whether you live or die, and the most important lesson of childhood is that survival depends on hitting the ground when the inevitable shooting starts. Some families are so fearful that whenever gang warfare flares up, they live behind closed curtains with the lights off, sleeping and eating on the floor to avoid stray bullets.

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