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Family Bands Together to Confront Troubles Surrounding N.Y. School

November 22, 1992|BRIAN MURPHY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — Maria DeLeon knows violence.

She learned a street-tough swagger as a teen-ager to survive in Brooklyn's harsh climate. She's been mugged. She's cowered from gunfire--and seen it claim her brother's life.

But when her 13-year-old son came home recently with a swollen cheek and scratched neck from a fight, she was alarmed. It wasn't the injuries that worried her, it was where the scuffle occurred--Eastern District High School.

"There is a lot of crazy things going on in the school, and it can just suck you in," DeLeon said. "I pray every day that nothing happens to my kids."

Two weeks earlier, on Oct. 2, an argument between black and Latino students in the cafeteria turned into a melee that took about 300 riot police to quell. Later, a 15-year-old freshman was slashed behind the right ear and required 33 stitches.

DeLeon's son, Neftali, was in the cafeteria when the brawl erupted. Her 17-year-old daughter, Maritza, was in class.

"I heard sirens, then I saw kids running around," said Maritza, who raced from the school with her brother. "It was crazy."

Outraged parents organized a two-day boycott of classes and forced officials to reduce class size to a maximum of 34 students and impose added security measures--full-time metal detectors and more guards.

DeLeon, who moved here from Puerto Rico in 1967 and graduated from Eastern District High four years later, helped organize the boycott.

Now, she meets late into the night with other parents worried about conditions at the school. Her husband, a mechanic, is doing the cooking. Maritza takes care of housework.

"It was hard on all of us," DeLeon said. "But we're proud of what we got done. Maybe it will be a safer place now. The kids were afraid they would walk in and never walk out again."

*

Blood is spilled with increasing frequency in the corridors and grounds of the nation's largest school system.

School figures show that there were 1,880 assaults throughout the system during the 1991-92 school year, compared to 1,235 the previous year. Sex offenses nearly doubled to 121 during the same period. Nearly 3,200 weapons--including 189 guns--were confiscated.

On Oct. 19, two freshmen honor students were wounded by stray gunfire outside a Bronx high school during a shooting on the street involving non-students. Two days later in Queens, an 18-year-old student managed to get a meat cleaver past a metal detector and attacked two classmates, both of whom were hospitalized.

The use of metal detectors was expanded last year--to about 40 of the city's 124 high schools--after a student opened fire in a Brooklyn school, killing a classmate and wounding a teacher.

"Did my daughter tell you about the gun?" DeLeon asks.

Maritza shrugs, then recounts the incident in a matter-of-fact tone: A boy sitting behind her in math class had a gun in his bag in September. No one reported it, she said. Everyone was too scared.

"Why am I going to get in the middle?" she asked. "I don't want to get shot."

She ticks off the other weapons common in school: "You got knives, box cutters, blades." Some girls, she said, conceal small stilettos in lipstick tubes.

But she is happy with the expanded security, especially the metal detectors.

"I've seen kids toss cutters and knives outside the school now because they know they'll be caught," she said.

Maritza is one of the school's success stories. She plans to take college entrance examinations in December and hopes to begin secretarial studies next year in Alfred, a small community in western New York.

"I'd like things nice and quiet for a while," she said.

*

The graffiti-covered front door of Eastern District High is the only way into the school, located in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The other entrances have been closed to improve security.

All visitors and the 3,200 students are scanned by hand-held metal detectors. Bags and purses are searched. Guards check shoes to make sure that knives are not taped to the soles or inside. Hair sometimes is examined for hidden weapons.

Students then are herded into the gym before the first class begins at 8:10 a.m. Maritza said she had to wait outside in line for nearly three hours when the system first was put in place. Now, the lines move quicker.

"I don't mind about that so much," she said. "It's a hassle, but it's for your own good."

She and her friends often eat lunch in the school's guidance office rather than enter the cafeteria. They talk about graduation and their future plans.

Her brother, however, faces three more years at Eastern District, a sprawling, concrete-block building near a busy intersection flanked by small stores, apartments and restaurants. The Manhattan skyline rises to the west.

On a subway platform, two groups of students wait for a Manhattan-bound train. One group, speaking a mix of Spanish and English, shares some french fries. The others, all black, speak English.

"That's how it pretty much is at school: blacks and Spanish stay apart," Neftali said. "Usually there are no problems, but sometimes, you know, stuff happens."

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