FULLERTON — Where 16-year-old Sonia comes from, the neighborhood streets are decidedly unfriendly. Rival gangs occasionally fistfight in the night. Bullets sometimes ricochet into the morning. For her, school offers a small degree of much-needed security.
But one afternoon in September, gunfire echoed through the sanctuary of Fullerton Union High School. A 15-year-old boy was fatally shot a block from campus as he walked home from school.
"After the shooting, we were all scared the next day," said Sonia, who like other students asked that her real name not be used. "I walked to school with a group of friends instead of by myself like I normally do."
For teen-agers in Orange County, such eruptions of violence are becoming all too familiar. Though it lacks the churning social upheaval that has claimed many young lives in Los Angeles, the suburban sprawl of Orange County is becoming rife with sporadic violence that has resulted in teen-age casualties.
More than half a dozen shootings involving public school students have occurred in Orange County since classes began in September, a disturbing pace of hostility that has caused concern among school officials and parents. The latest came Nov. 19 when a high school student and a recent graduate were wounded in a drive-by shooting in normally placid Irvine.
But in schools scattered around the county, students say that everyday life on and off campus hardly mirrors such perilous incidents. Only a small fraction of the schools have experienced traumatic violence, and even on campuses where shootings have occurred, students typically say they have learned to cope.
"When shootings happen, the first few days everyone talks about it and everyone gets excited about it as they're discussing it," said a 17-year-old senior from Santa Ana High School. But soon, "you get used to it; you get used to hearing about fights, shootings, drive-bys when you grow up in an area that has them.
"That's life and that's part of being a student. Violence is not dominant in school, but you know it's there. You just know not to let it control you."
Indeed, teen-agers are veterans at adapting to the environment around them, said John Sikorski, a San Francisco child psychiatrist and associate clinical professor at UC San Francisco Medical Center.
"All you have to do is look at the world from the eyes of children these days," Sikorski said. "The television has all kinds of murders, violence, rape, mayhem hour after hour. They come to think this is what the world is all about. . . . So I'm not surprised that the kids seem to shrug it off."
But such stoicism often masks inner turmoil, he said. "Inside they're scared," Sikorski said. "They're scared about lots of things, besides just violence."
Gangs seem to prompt the most anxiety among youths in some of the county's tougher schools. But school grounds are considered neutral territory, and the gang members themselves often seem less ominous than their brethren up the freeway in Los Angeles, say students and administrators.
"School ground and school-sponsored activities are one thing; anything anywhere else is something different," said a senior at Garden Grove's Santiago High School as he sat in the bleachers during a football game. During school time, "you leave people alone," he said.
Outside the neutral zone of schools, however, the turf is a battleground. Strangers sometimes cruise the bordering streets looking for a fight or potential victims. More often than not, drive-by or gang-related shootings near a campus involve non-student aggressors, authorities say.
But that is not to say the risks are kept beyond the school gates.
Several students reported that some boastful classmates arrive on campus packing weapons ranging from screwdrivers to ice picks to switchblades and handguns. "Some people show each other their weapons during lunch hour," said a 17-year-old senior at Irvine's Woodbridge High. "Some are guns and some are replicas. They just want to prove" their toughness.
Faculty members acknowledge that there are weapons on campus, but they say students cling to them as tools for security, for self protection, and not for offense.
Campus aggression can also come in more subtle ways. A 16-year-old from Huntington Beach related how a classmate refused to dress for physical education class because he had been roughed up by gang members in the locker room.
The county's changing racial and ethnic makeup has predictably caused strains among pupils on several high school campuses.
At one normally tranquil high school in the southern part of the county, a white girl who had transferred to escape problems at more volatile schools to the north complained that she was jumped and beaten by a group of Latino girls soon after she arrived.