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Students Are Learning to Be Good Neighbors

Officials are trying to build better relations between high schools and nearby merchants.

May 19, 2003|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

For Rose City High School students, the 1:30 p.m. dismissal bell marks a moment of freedom. But some businesses along tony South Lake Avenue in Pasadena have dreaded that time of day.

When hundreds of students spill out of the high school's doorways, many of them head east to the bus stop at South Lake Avenue and East Del Mar Boulevard. As they wait for their ride, they lean against shop windows, laugh with abandon and mill around on the sidewalk.

The teenagers say, sure, they can be loud, but they're not out to harm anyone.

Until recently, neighboring businesses and residents saw things another way. They complained that students were hurting their businesses by making too much noise, fighting, defacing property and shoplifting.

"Let's face it. High school kids have so much energy that, when there are 20 of them together, it's intimidating to a mannerly customer in a Pasadena shop," said the South Lake Business Assn.'s representative, Jo Nelson. Her group is trying to keep South Lake "a destination of distinction."

That kind of friction has prompted school officials in Pasadena, Long Beach, North Hollywood and other Southern California communities to put more focus on the relationship between high schools and their off-campus neighbors.

Schools are issuing new announcements and guidelines about respect for neighbors' property, meeting with local business representatives and assigning aides to supervise students at dismissal time, even with video cameras. School police have also assumed a higher profile.

In response to merchants' complaints, George McKenna, assistant superintendent of secondary instruction in the Pasadena Unified School District, attended a meeting of the South Lake Business Assn. and took merchants to a student assembly at the continuation high school.

Store owners asked Rose City students to help them create a safe and clean business environment. Principal Oscar Palmer challenged the youths to eliminate fights for the rest of the semester and to survey local merchants later this spring about teenagers' behavior. School officials also asked the public bus company to send vehicles more promptly, to reduce waiting times for youngsters.

"Some merchants don't see the students as customers, but rather as driving away customers," McKenna said in an interview later. "We wanted to bridge the gap: humanize the students and vice versa."

The bus stop, he said, "isn't part of the school." But he said it is educators' responsibility to make sure the students "understand right and wrong. I'd rather take responsibility than have the police confront them."

Many businesses said the schools' efforts in Pasadena and elsewhere have helped.

"Since the stores told the officials and police are out there in the afternoon, the kids are more quiet and respectful," said Marcia Thomas, who manages Webster's Hallmark on South Lake.

Jason Castro, a Rose City senior, said he sympathizes with the merchants. But he added: "Sometimes Rose City kids get stared at funny" because merchants "think they're doing something." Then, he said, the students think, " 'Might as well give them a reason to look.' "

Victor Gamboa, a 12th-grader at Rose City who waits for the bus, said he and his friends may go into stores to get out of the sun or for a drink of water or to look at shoes. "But we're not trying to disrupt the place," he said.

Some school officials in Long Beach have begun using camcorders and cameras as they stroll the block after the afternoon bells ring.

Byron Briggs, an assistant principal at Jordan High School in Long Beach, said that he catches about five students a month on camera tagging or fighting off-campus. They face suspension and possible arrest.

"We want our kids to feel safe, and we want businesses to know we appreciate their being in our community," Briggs said. "We want to tell businesses, 'Look, when these kids graduate, you can hire them, because you know how our students act.' " The school also sends students messages each semester to respect campus neighbors.

Long Beach business owners said that they appreciate the beefed-up adult presence but that authorities sometimes arrive too late to stop trouble.

Jun Oh said he catches teenagers stealing lipstick, earrings or hair caps from his beauty supply store near Jordan High every few months. Oh tries to control the crowds after school by closing the front door.

At one point, he said, he posted a sign reading: "One student at a time." But the Korean American said he took it down after teenagers used a racial slur toward him. Still, he said, he does not think all teenagers have bad intentions.

Students in Long Beach said they don't mean to make trouble, but they do dislike having businesses treat them differently.

Cherry Martin, a 10th-grader who buys cheeseburgers regularly from the McDonald's across from Jordan High, said the restaurant staff asks students to leave more quickly than they do other customers.

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