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VALUES / The need to belong.

A Vicious Circle

Cliques are a part of being a teenager. Although many parents fear the groups have become dangerous, some experts say to chill--little has changed.

May 19, 1999|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Banowsky is a Goth in kicker land.

His lipstick and nail polish are black, his hair is dyed S-15 Black Velvet and poofed up like a troll doll's. His Satan's Cheerleaders T-shirt is covered by a long-sleeved shirt he made out of fishnet hose. A bondage belt takes 10 minutes to put on each morning; it rides beneath a 13-pound black leather jacket laden with spikes.

Not exactly the wardrobe of choice at a boot-scootin' Texas high school, where cowboys and jocks are the Big Men on Campus. A boy he'd never met from the school's reigning country-western crowd registered his rejection of the Goth look by spewing chewing tobacco juice in Banowsky's face. Banowsky admits that the harassment provoked him to "help the kicker down some stairs."

That little clique struggle meant diploma by GED.

"It was typical for how it went," says Banowsky, on the phone from his porch in San Antonio. "Within my group I get treated very well, because I behave respectably. But outside of my group, I'm not considered very popular because of the things I do. . . .

"For a while it was like I'd stick my clothes in a blender and see what it looks like. And going to school looking like you were just dug up from the ground--the kickers didn't like that, but my friends thought, 'Hey, cooool!' "

Now 19 and training to be a martial arts instructor, Banowsky managed to survive high school peer pressure with his chosen identity intact. But he understands how students like Eric Harris and Dylan Kiebold might not.

"The tyranny of the little guy," he called it. "They got stepped on because of what they liked."

Same as it ever was?

Much remains untold about the private lives of the boys who gunned down 13 people and then themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 20; little is known of what triggered the blood bath.

School psychologists, counselors and sociologists say they doubt a scenario in which the deranged spree was simply payback by computer nerds tormented by jocks. Still, when the rampage cracked open this modern-looking school in the Denver suburbs, old and familiar status strata were exposed within.

And in the numbing aftermath of the deadliest school slaughter in our history, fears have rushed in about teen cliques: Have they become more ominous, more threatening, more dangerous, more deadly? If a kid joins the wrong one, is there anything we can do?

"It's really hard to tell if we're looking at things getting worse or not," says Dr. Beth Doll, associate professor of school psychology at the University of Colorado at Denver, where she has focused on the factors in a community that foster a child's mental health. "I think we are quick to remember a real idyllic view of our childhood, and then to think things are much worse. But we really don't have any evidence that's true.

"I mean, I remember terribly difficult cliques when I was in high school," says Doll, 48. "And think of 'West Side Story' [first staged in 1957]; it was a musical about gang violence in the schools."

But the gangs in "West Side Story" fought mainly with bricks and knives. The prevalence of guns in the population today casts a darker shadow over parents and students weighing the pros and cons of particular friendships. Teen violence is actually down from several years ago, but gun seizures on campus have increased.

"Gun access? This is the $64,000 question," says Bradford Brown, professor and chairman of the educational psychology department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Since 1982, Brown has researched adolescents and the importance of their peers. In a recent three-year study, he and others surveyed and interviewed about 16,000 high school students in Wisconsin and California, asking about their social circles.

"Littleton, and what is going on there? The most honest answer is: we don't know," he says. But his studies have revealed "a couple of changes that I think are noteworthy. The first is, as schools become multi-ethnic . . . adolescents [have become] a bit more sensitive about stereotypes. Our conscience has been raised about identity."

The second thing, Brown says, is that "certain affiliation can be a life or death thing. Say gang affiliation. . . . It's real dangerous to wear one's group identity so openly. Walking down the street can be the end of your life.

"In the good old days, as we fondly remember them, gee, maybe there was a big brawl and somebody came home with a black eye or a broken arm. Nobody came home dead. That can happen these days."

Austin Wade has seen the differences--and similarities--in cliques from school to school. Born in Belize, he moved to the States with his father, who eventually settled in a dangerous part of Los Angeles. Austin attended ninth grade at Jordan High in Long Beach but got into a fistfight and was booted. He transferred to University High School in Irvine, where he played football and graduated last year with A's and Bs. Now 19, he dreams of making it as a rapper.

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