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Plenty of questions but no easy answers in wake of gang rape

Brutality of the incident at Richmond High is hard to fathom.

October 31, 2009|SANDY BANKS

The sense of horror seems to be fading at Richmond High -- the Northern California school that made news around the world this week after a 15-year-old girl was gang-raped outside a campus homecoming dance while a crowd of students watched but did nothing to intervene.

Local school board members in this East Bay city near Oakland want to promote safety measures -- fences, lights, security cameras -- on the drawing board for years, now about to be delivered.

Richmond High students want outsiders to stop calling them animals and savages. "We feel like they're blaming the school," an angry senior complained at a school board meeting I attended Wednesday night. "It wasn't nobody's fault," she said. "People shouldn't be pointing fingers."

And school officials are making sure to emphasize the tragedies that didn't happen.

The homecoming dance "was a success in terms of safety because nothing happened at the event," a campus police officer announced. "We have a safe environment at Richmond High."

And I wondered if that made the students feel better, as I surveyed the secluded swath of campus where the sophomore girl was raped and beaten for two hours last Saturday night while the partygoers danced in the gym.

Police said as many as 10 people participated in the attack while 20 others watched -- jeering, taking photos and messaging friends to join them.

The sideshow went on until almost midnight, when police were called by a girl whose boyfriend had turned down the invitation to come have sex with "a drunk girl." Officers found the victim cowering under a bench, half-naked, intoxicated and semiconscious.

The girl was hospitalized for four days. Five suspects face felony charges.

::

I've thought about the theories offered by experts this week to explain the brutality of the attack and the onlookers' passivity.

They blamed music and video games that glamorize violence; desensitized men who treat women like pieces of meat; the disengagement of young people in a world ruled by technology, where real life is what's on YouTube. Or the powerlessness these disenfranchised kids feel in their violent neighborhood and fractured families.

All of it rang true to me. But it wasn't enough, so I headed for Richmond High and found students struggling to understand how their campus had become the latest example of urban depravity.

Their theories are drawn from campus gossip and what their own lives in this working-class town have taught them.

The troublemakers at Richmond are emulating what they see in popular culture. "A lot of them, they don't think they're going to be successful," said junior Olachi Obioma. "They've already been judged, so they go with that. They drink, they smoke, they pop pills. It's the 'bad boy' culture. That's how they see themselves."

And the girls are saddled with similar pressures. "It's our mentality that's wrong," said junior Kami Baker. "Look at our pop culture. The way the girls dress, the way the guys use them for sex and the girls keep going back. . . . It's hard for some girls to rise above that."

Kami is a friend of the girl who was raped. The last time she saw her, they were dancing together at homecoming. "She looked so happy, so pretty" in a sparkly purple dress, dangling earrings and silver heels.

"People are saying it's her fault because she got drunk. But that could have been me. They beat her up and no one did anything to help her."

Explain that, I asked the students I talked to. And their explanations were as good as the experts':

The kids who watched were scared to tell, afraid that "snitching" would make them targets.

Or they thought the girl was a willing participant; that it might be a gang initiation ritual. Guys get "jumped in" to gangs, girls get "sexed in," some said.

Or they didn't intervene because they didn't know the girl and didn't feel compelled to help a stranger. On a big, racially mixed campus like Richmond, you stick with your own and mind your business.

Or, they were simply so shocked their minds went blank.

"Maybe they were just caught in the moment," suggested Olachi, who wore a "Stop Violence Against Women" button pinned to her backpack.

She wasn't at the dance and didn't know the victim, but believes she would have tried to stop the attack. "I'm surprised that no one went and got a security guard," she said. "But maybe people didn't know what to do. Because we never thought this would happen. So we never learned about it."

::

I thought about all those sexual harassment classes and date rape warnings and "no means no" slogans we offer up to our sons and daughters. While they are binge-drinking, hooking up and freak dancing.

How, when confronted with such an obvious violation of humanity, could so many teenagers fall so short and feel so unashamed about it?

The students I talked to after the fact at Richmond High all said they would have intervened. And yet, none of them denounced the kids who didn't.

I sensed they couldn't reconcile the conflict between their ideals and their reality.

And we can't solve all their problems with taller fences, brighter lights and tighter security.

Kami Baker said she was friendly not just with the victim, but with one of the jailed suspects as well.

"He was a genuinely nice guy," she said. She'd tutored him in English class for one semester, two years back. "He was quiet, kind of shy."

The victim knew him too, she said. And when police found her stripped, beaten and violated, the boy was there.

"I just don't get it," Kami said.

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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