There are walls around the neighborhood where Margaret Ensley raised her son, wrought-iron bars and barricades. Outside it's a war zone, South-Central Los Angeles. But inside, she was sure, her boy would be safe.
Safety was why Ensley kept her son home nights. Safety was why his friends saw him at his house, not theirs. And when he reached adolescence, safety was why she bused him to a school 45 minutes away, pulling every string she knew to get and keep him there.
"The school he was slotted to go to was Locke High (in South-Central)," the 45-year-old Athens Heights mother said. She spoke slowly, her voice nearly breaking with grief. "But because the gang activity there was so pronounced, I elected to send him to a better area. I had to make a lot of calls. But everyone said the Valley, the Valley's the safest place."
So it was on Monday--in broad daylight, in the one place she felt she could trust--that Margaret Ensley lost her son. Authorities said Michael Shean Ensley, 17, was shot point-blank in the chest as he stood in a corridor at Reseda High School during a midmorning snack break. His assailant, friends said, ran with a clique that had been harassing him for months.
Ensley, a 45-year-old assistant sales representative for AT&T, said that she had raised her two children on her own since Michael, the younger, was 3. She scraped to buy into the tranquil Athens Heights neighborhood, with its wide, palm-lined streets and flossy lawns. She had been pushy about keeping Michael in the San Fernando Valley schools.
One need only look past the barricaded streets to see why. Despite its big houses and deep lots, Athens Heights is an island in a sea of drive-by shootings and burned-out cars.
Initially, Michael was enrolled at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, but moved to Reseda when he began to have disciplinary problems.
"He came home and told me, 'Mama, there are these guys who want me to join their gang, and they say they'll jump me . . . if I don't,' " Ensley said. School records confirm he was transferred in February, 1991, after being punished too many times for minor infractions. He re-enrolled at Taft in the fall of that year but returned to Reseda after his grades fell.
School officials confirmed that Ensley had succeeded in keeping her son out of gangs.
But the transfer created problems for him, according to his mother and friends. A clique of "taggers" at Reseda associated Ensley with their cross-town rivals at Taft, and harassed him incessantly, they said.
"They made remarks to him, like 'We're gonna get you,' " the mother said, "but we tried not to take it seriously. He wanted to graduate on time. He was going to Harbor College in the fall. "
Margaret Ensley clutched her chest and doubled up with sobs.
"Just a few more months," she choked, remembering how she dropped her office phone when her daughter called. She could not stand to hear anything after those words, "Michael has been shot."
Then, she sat up straight, and looked at her bookcase, filled with African art. Tears rolled down her face and fell from her chin.
"You need to tell them that not all our boys in South-Central are gangbangers," she instructed. "Michael was beautiful, inside and out. If a neighbor had a bad day, he would cut flowers out of my yard and bring them over just to cheer them up. And every stray animal he found, he would bring home, because he couldn't stand it that they didn't have a mother.
"He was a beautiful boy. You tell them that." She got up to say goodby.
"Tell them that not all of our boys are involved in gang activity.
"Some just want to make it out alive."