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A Slap at Handball Players?

Facilities at Saddleback High serve a park-starved Santa Ana, but officials, citing problems, want to remove them.

June 27, 2005|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Jose Martin Ortiz has been playing handball on the concrete courts of Saddleback High School in Santa Ana for more than two decades, getting a workout, socializing with friends and enjoying the evening air.

"You get conditioning and coordination, you work out your upper body and legs," the 39-year-old said. "It helped me stay off drugs and out of gangs."

But Ortiz's days playing handball at the Santa Ana Unified School District campus may be numbered.

District officials plan to tear down Saddleback's dozen courts and its two-story walls, which at night provide cover for less-wholesome enterprises: graffiti, drinking and drug use, gambling and sex.

The plan has drawn opposition not only from handball players but also from residents who say school officials are overlooking the good the courts provide, including supplying recreational opportunities for park-starved Santa Ana residents and offering after-school activities for teens.

"The students there that use the handball courts after school, they will have nowhere to go," said Vincent Gonzales, 40, a Santa Ana resident who has played the sport since he was 9 and now watches his 14-year-old son play in national tournaments. "It's going to put them on the street."

District trustees voted in April to tear down the courts after Saddleback's principal said they had become a haven for illicit behavior.

Demolition is expected to cost the district as much as $35,000. There is also talk of tearing down courts at Valley and Century high schools, and at the district's middle schools.

Courts at Santa Ana High School were removed more than a decade ago for the same reasons.

"It's an ongoing situation at all the schools where we have handball courts," said Lewis Bratcher, an assistant superintendent.

But after community protests, some district leaders are having second thoughts.

"Given the financial condition of the district -- we just came out of near-bankruptcy -- it would not make sense to spend approximately $35,000 ... to demolish [the courts] when we could spend the money in our classrooms," board member John Palacio said.

With a median age of 26 and an average household of 4.6 people, Santa Ana's population is among the youngest and densest of any large U.S. city.

Santa Ana has more than 1,100 residents per acre of park land -- twice the density of Manhattan, and nearly three times that of Los Angeles.

"If you look at the recreational facilities, whether provided by the city of Santa Ana or the school district, our facilities are not sufficient to meet the demands of our youth," Palacio said.

The game, which originated in Ireland in the 1700s, handball is popular in Latino communities. And it's inexpensive -- all that's needed is a $3 rubber ball.

"We need every facility possible to keep our citizens out here ... working their hearts," said Sergio Verino, a member of the Santa Ana Board of Parks & Recreation.

"Saddleback is heavily used. It would be a shame to knock them out without doing some extensive research to try to curb the problems with park rangers and city police."

Handball players hoping to persuade school officials to keep the courts collected nearly $500 to pay a retired man to pick up trash and paint over graffiti. They also want to rent portable toilets but have not been given permission by the district.

Some players also contacted the U.S. Handball Assn., which has offered to provide training, lesson plans and equipment so the courts could be used more extensively in the school's physical education classes.

"Most schools throughout the country would die for these facilities," said Gary Cruz, the association's youth program coordinator. "Santa Ana has all these wonderful courts and all these kids that love handball. Instead of tearing the courts down, they should be looking at using the courts."

Deputy Supt. John Bennett said the district was willing to work with community organizations to avoid razing the courts.

"Hopefully, that can be worked out so that it provides a safe place for all our students and the community to use," he said. "The bottom line is, if all else fails and we cannot secure that area ... then we would have to take the next step."

On a recent weekday evening, dozens of teens, adults and seniors filled Saddleback's courts, while more waited their turn. On weekends, more than 100 players can be found at the courts.

George Vences, 15, said it was unfair for handball players to be punished for the actions of others. "We're not the ones tagging the walls," said Vences, who just finished his freshman year at Saddleback. "We're just here to play."

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