Teachers in Barrio Logan returned to school Monday with a sense of failure.
For more than two years, they had worked without success to turn around the behavior of a boy who fought, vandalized and engaged in other gang-related activity. Despite all their efforts, they learned late last week that the 10-year-old now stands accused of shooting into a neighbor's home, killing a 25-year-old mother of three.
Teachers, the principal, a nurse, a psychologist and counselors at Perkins Elementary School had put in thousands of hours over a two-year period to qualify the child for a special class elsewhere that might be able handle his emotional problems and allow him to find an academic niche.
Their counterparts at nearby King Elementary attempted the same rescue procedures after the boy was transferred to a special class there. They even worked up a home-study plan after the boy repeatedly ran out on his new school.
Yet, in the face of his apparent incorrigibility--and his mother's admitted inability to exercise any control over her son--the educators now feel devastated over their failure to turn the child around.
"When something like this happens, everyone feels some type of guilt, of failure," Perkins Principal Marco Curiel said Monday. "At the elementary school level, we see ourselves as very nurturing; we have the mind set of saviors.
"It's been a real emotional week. We knew that we had lost a Perkins parent. But we never thought that we'd have to confront the suspect side of the issue as well."
Dennis Doyle, principal at King, added: "Any failure cuts to the quick for us as educators, especially where there's a life lost in the process."
The boy was charged Friday with murder in the March 8 death of Manuela Garcia de la Rosa, who was shot in the head while tucking her 8-year-old son into bed. The youth's mother told The Times last week that the boy admitted firing bullets into the wall of the trailer where the victim lived with her family, but he said that he was only trying to shoot out a light and not kill anyone.
The boy's mother, struggling to raise seven children as a single mother on public assistance, said her son had been in constant trouble at school and with police for roaming the downtrodden neighborhood late at night, tagging walls with his graffiti, and for mouthing profanities at his mother, teachers and community workers.
School administrators were reluctant to criticize the mother, even though she said last week that both Perkins and King schools had "kicked out" her so.
"I'm sure there's a lot of frustration on the part of the mom over the lack of her ability to supervise the child, and it's not just limited to what happened at school," Curiel said. "But it's hard for me to pass judgment on the parent because of the environment, of all the things she may have had to go through."
Teachers also worry about what will happen to the boy's siblings, three of whom attended Perkins. In fact, his older sister, a sixth-grader at Perkins, was "adopted" Monday by her teacher. The teacher has permission from Curiel to pick up the girl each morning, take her to school, then return her home in the afternoon each school day until June so that she can be promoted with the rest of her class.
The family received an eviction notice Thursday, the day after the boy was arrested for Garcia's death. The family began moving its few possessions to a house in National City over the weekend, putting the children outside the San Diego Unified School District boundaries.
"The teacher was willing to make a personal commitment" to keep the girl's education going at Perkins, Curiel said.
"I know people ask what society is coming to, with all of these problems, but my teachers have an even greater sense of mission now to go beyond the call of duty, to try to be the emotional life jackets for kids who don't have those (parent) parameters at home."
But, without a parent able to pitch in and help, "it's a lot more difficult," Frederick Cruz, King vice principal, said. "Yet not impossible."
After transferring to King Elementary last summer, the boy probably spent no more than the equivalent of a full week in class, principal Doyle said.
"He habitually ran away," Cruz said. "He would come to school, spend maybe a half hour or so, and then get up and leave. I spent a lot of time in my truck trying to track him down. Dennis (Doyle) and I visited the mother several times. It was just difficult to keep him in school."
Doyle said that, at one point or another, he discussed the boy's situation with "the (county) juvenile intervention people, with Barrio Station (community center), with the special education department people--even calling them at home--with school administrators for my area, with fellow elementary principals, with people on the Mexican-American Advisory Committee; with anyone who might be able to help him."
Since his arrest, the boy's mother said, he calls her several times a day from Juvenile Hall, where he is being held, tearfully telling her that he wants to come home.
The mother told The Times last week that, although she listens to his plea, she will not tell her son her real feelings about the matter.
"I've told the police that I don't want him to come home," she said. "He needs discipline to help him turn his life around. . . . He needs to be in a place where someone can have some control over him. You know, he's only 10."