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A Fitting Memorial in San Clemente : Teen's Killing Has Energized Residents to Fight Crime, Ignorance, Misunderstandings

October 23, 1994

From the time of the attack that left teen-ager Steve Woods in a coma until his death nearly a month later, the quiet seaside community of San Clemente fought through its shock to recognize problems and start solving them. There have been many commendable efforts toward that end, and their continuance is an appropriate response to a senseless death.

Woods, 17, was speared in the head with a paint roller rod last year while riding in a car with friends, leaving a beach after a Friday night party. Police blamed the attack on Latino gang members, but relatives of the accused contended Woods' friends had started the fracas by taunting the Latinos. Two months ago, two teen-agers were convicted of second-degree murder in the attack. A third man pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Other cases are pending.

Woods' death and the arrests prompted some wrongheaded denunciations of Latinos in general. Sheriff's Lt. Tom Davis, San Clemente's chief of police services, properly denounced those sentiments while also pointing out that gangs were indeed a problem, no matter what their members' ethnic backgrounds. Davis put a four-person anti-gang unit on the streets, targeted the top 20 youthful offenders in San Clemente and followed them through the criminal justice system. Residents took such steps to improve their community as the formation of Neighborhood Watch programs.

At San Clemente High School, Principal Christopher Cairns and teachers developed programs to assist minority students and explain differing cultures to all the pupils. The city's Task Force for Youth signed up people for a new tutor and mentor program. Those can be valuable tools in showing students that education can help them attain a better future; the absence of that hope is often a motivator for gang membership and crime.

Besides public meetings on gangs, there were also public forums on what Latinos perceive as racism in San Clemente. Airing those concerns is healthy; all segments of the community should understand the concerns of others. Whites are still the majority in San Clemente, but the 1990 U.S. Census found that the Latino population had doubled to about 13% of the total.

Woods' killing shattered the image of San Clemente as a peaceful suburban paradise. But it energized many residents as well to fight crime and help others. Maintaining those good programs would be a fitting memorial to a teen-ager who died tragically.

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