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An Uneasy Mix of Two Worlds : Recreation: Some say a school's program bringing together children with gang members is an accident waiting to happen.

June 25, 1995|MARILYN MARTINEZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The grunts and groans from the young men playing basketball fill the Echo Park elementary school playground, the tattooed arms and chests on some revealing their membership in a violent street gang. A 15-year-old with a shaved head and a mean strut carries a 40-ounce beer on campus and stays to watch the game.

A few feet from the basketball court, two young boys play a board game. About 40 yards away, a group of second- and third-graders play kick ball.

This mix of children with gang members on the same playground has Echo Park residents and community leaders arguing over a six-week-old Saturday recreation program. The program opened the Elysian Heights Elementary schoolyard to any youth 5 through 18, offering activities such as basketball and handball, as well as workshops in arts and crafts.

The program, funded by the Los Angeles Unified School District, was originally conceived to offer Echo Park gang members a hassle-free place to play basketball. The program is attracting 40 to 50 participants, mostly gang members in their teens and early 20s. About a dozen in the program are elementary-school age.

"Most of these kids are the ones the homeowners don't like to see hanging out on the corner," said Sandra Figueroa, director of El Centro del Pueblo, a social service agency for gang members that organized the program. "This is an alternative. Nothing but positive things can come out of this."

But opponents argue that allowing members of the Echo Park gang--which has been locked in tit-for-tat violence with neighboring gangs for years--on campus makes the children vulnerable to shootings by rival gangs. Some parents are organizing a committee to monitor the program, while members of a residents association and others are calling for its end.

"I'm worried because the other gangs might come by and shoot," said Maria Flores, a parent who is helping to form a committee of residents, police and school officials that would assess the program.

Meanwhile, other residents have stepped forward to offer arts and crafts workshops, and a benefit is planned to raise money for materials and playground equipment. Many are members of a Neighborhood Watch group that helped start the program.

After a series of shootings last year between Echo Park gang members and their rivals in the blocks surrounding the school, Neighborhood Watch members asked El Centro del Pueblo what they could do to stem the violence. Gang members said they needed a safe, legal place for recreation.

"Our whole object was to get beyond the fear we were feeling in our neighborhood and communicate with these kids," said Weba Garretson, a program volunteer. "I didn't expect resistance and I didn't expect it to be so intense."

According to organizers, the only glitch has been two incidents in which young men brought beer onto the campus.

"The fact that you have a gang member 60 yards away from a 6-year-old and they are both doing something positive with their life is a step in the right direction," said Willie Martinez, executive director of El Centro del Pueblo.

But a group of parents say the program was approved too quickly and without their full consent. After parents voted against the program at a school meeting, a second meeting was held at which it was approved.

Its start-up was guaranteed when it won the support of Board of Education member Victoria Castro, who found the money to pay for two school recreation supervisors to be on campus on Saturdays. City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg won council approval for $700 to pay for an El Centro employee to supervise gang members.

Castro and the school's principal, Maxine Reigh, said gang-related violence can happen anywhere.

"It's the same thing that happens when you go to a public park and you have children playing," said Castro. "The difference is in the park, sometimes there is no supervision. There are rules set up [at the school]. The so-called gang members have been fully cooperative."

And supporters claim that the program has provided unexpected ways to help troubled youth. El Centro del Pueblo tracked down the 15-year-old gang member who brought beer onto the campus. The boy, who had dropped out of school, was enrolled in a vocational skills center and offered classes for teen-age alcoholics.

"He was begging to be noticed and we did just that," said Martinez. "Through basketball and recreation we are being able to access youth. If I can get a kid into El Centro, if I can provide him with chemical counseling, if I can engage someone's mother, I can make a positive change."

Officer Joe Writer, the Los Angeles Police Department's senior lead officer for the area, said he has yet to form an opinion of the program. But, Writer said, the Echo Park gang is "a certified street terrorist gang and has been for 50 years. They have killed innocent people in the past. They carry guns."

In May, an Echo Park gang member was arrested in the fatal shooting of Arthur Mayer, 44, who was apparently mistaken for a rival gang member. Police said Mayer, who was walking with his wife to their car at a gas station, was shot after someone yelled out that rival gang members had returned to the area. About 15 minutes earlier, gunshots had been exchanged between Echo Park gang members and a rival gang.

While most residents applaud the program's goals, some say an elementary school playground is simply the wrong place.

"There's a real concern because when you have members of a known violent street gang on the playground with little kids, I mean, there is a potential for things to go wrong," said Susan Borden, a member of the Echo Park Improvement Assn. who has joined the parents' committee. "Basically, it's not a question of if, but a question of when."

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