Gangs in schools
West Side schools have most gang activity, report says
By Gustavo Reveles Acosta and Tammy Fonce-Olivas
El Paso Times
Sunday, March 26, 2006
To protect the privacy of young students, the El Paso Times has chosen to identify those younger than 18 only by their first name and to photograph some scenes with police in a way to protect teens' identity.
Franklin and Coronado -- perhaps the two high schools least associated with gang activity in the city -- have more gang members than any other high schools in the El Paso Independent School District.
A report compiled by the EPISD Police Department and obtained by the El Paso Times shows that Coronado has 140 identified gang members attending classes, while Franklin has 105. Both schools are on the city's West Side, an area considered by many to be more affluent and less prone to violence.
The reports indicate Andress High School in the Northeast has 103 students in gangs. High schools with the fewest number of gang members are Burges with 25 and Chapin with 26.
The EPISD police department produced the gang report after a trustee asked for information on safety in schools. The gang figures were gathered by officers who interviewed students at their assigned campuses.
"The goal of the report was to show that we do have gang members attending every one of our high schools," EPISD Police Chief Armando Nava Jr. said, "but to also outline that the problem is controlled and not affecting the safety of our students."
This is the first time the EPISD has gathered these figures on gang membership in its schools, and experts on school violence commended the district on taking an important first step in confronting the problem.
Kenneth Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, said acknowledging and documenting the presence of gangs in schools is the first step.
"You have to applaud the school district. The biggest problem we normally have with officials is denial," Trump said. "Denial actually fuels the growth of gangs."
Neither the Ysleta not the Socorro school district could provide figures on gang membership at each high school.
The EPISD's Nava said it could be surprising that Franklin and Coronado have higher gang membership among their students than any other high school in the district, but he said the figures could be explained by the growth trends on the West Side.
Both Franklin and Coronado have had growths in populations during the past five years and remain the district's only 5A schools -- the largest classification in student enrollment.
Schools such as Andress, Irvin, Jefferson and Bowie have seen slower growth rates or even a decline in enrollment.
"We have students coming into the West Side and Upper Valley from all over the city," Nava said. "I don't want to talk bad about public housing, but there are some in the area, too, and people are moving into them."
Trump said gangs are prominent in low-income areas, but they do transcend socioeconomic boundaries and can be seen in the so-called wealthy parts of town.
Franklin is the only high school in the city that does not receive federal Title 1 funds -- an indicator of the percentage of poor students attending a school.
Coronado just last year began receiving Title 1 money.
"We know that gangs are not an issue of poor or rich; they're an issue of belonging," Trump said.
"The gangs provide a kid with order, structure and discipline," he added. "They join because there's dysfunction at home, and that can happen in any part of a community -- not just in the poor part."
A 15-year-old Franklin freshman named Michelle said she knows classmates who have been in gangs or party crews since middle school, although she believes they are mostly nonviolent.
"Probably everybody at Franklin consists of some type of gang, but there are not any real hard-core gangs," she said.
At worst, she said, students associated with gangs or party crews become involved in the occasional fight on campus or near the school.
Like Michelle, other students throughout the district said that although gangs do seem to be present at their campuses, they feel safe at school.
Another Franklin student, Jorge, acknowledged that he befriends many people who are in gangs.
He and his friends wear baggy jeans and thick silver chains around their necks.
People who join gangs "do it for different motives, like for protection from other gangs," Jorge said. "Mostly it's for stupidity ... but then later on you regret it because you grow out of it."
Jorge said El Paso gangs are calm and hardly ever resort to excessive violence.
"I come from Juárez, and I basically grew up with gangsters and drug dealers and crazy people. I noticed when I came here that things are actually softer," he said. "Over there they have stabbings and killings. Over here it's just like rumbles and basically more talk."
Students at other EPISD schools also said they felt safe at their campuses.
Carlos, a sophomore at Burges, said that although gangs and party crews are present at the East-Central school, he doesn't feel threatened.
"I see them, but there are very few and they keep to themselves. They don't really look like gangsters like they did back at Ross (Middle)," Carlos said. "Ross is worse ... because the people at Ross couldn't drop out. They probably are old enough to drop out by the time they get to Burges."
Chief Nava agreed that schools in El Paso are safe, especially when compared with other urban school districts that have employed metal detectors and other measures to prevent gun and weapon use on campuses.
"Still, one gang member is too many," he said.
J.R. Martinez, Ysleta's director of security, said the district doesn't keep detailed figures on gang membership per school, but does keep track of which students have been identified as gang members.
The former police officer, who worked for the department's gang unit, said gang activity is present throughout the district and tends to move from one area to the next.
"Sometimes we go through periods when nothing happens, and then all of a sudden we have a situation in the area, not the school necessarily, where there is a stabbing," he said. "Right now, for example, we hear of flares of gang activity in the Bel Air area, but not much in Eastwood."
Martinez said Ysleta schools are safe, and students should not feel threatened by the presence of gangs in the area.
"We try to be very vigilant about this," he said. "We are on the lookout for gang signals and other gang-related indicators to put a stop to them immediately."
Eastwood High School freshman Robert said he doesn't know any gang members but is friends with people who are in party crews.
Although party crews don't see themselves as gangs, police and other officials say they meet the criteria for gangs because they gather groups of people under a name or sign with the intent of breaking the law.
District officials and police say party crews, as well as gangs, have been responsible for illicit and criminal activity in schools, such as drug possession, assault and bullying.
"Those guys aren't cholos or anything. They just want to party with their friends," Robert said. "I know they drink and stay out late, but they're not hurting anybody. I don't think they're going to kill anybody or anything."
Like the EPISD, the Socorro school district has its own police department that continually tracks identified gang members.
Socorro police Chief Michael Czerwinsky said, though, that the district doesn't keep figures of how many gangs or gang members attend each of the district's four high schools, "but gangs do exist at every campus."
Czerwinsky said the district has taken on a preventive, rather than a law enforcement, approach to gangs in Socorro schools.
The district has appointed a school resource officer to every high school, and this certified peace officer has been assigned to identify and understand the gang culture at that campus.
"These officers are working with the kids; they know who is a member and who is a potential member," Czerwinsky said. "They develop a relationship with the kid ... they become their friend. By reaching out, we prevent."
Still, gang violence has leaked out to at least one campus.
The El Paso County Sheriff's Office reported that a double stabbing at Socorro High School in February was gang-related.
Czerwinsky acknowledged the gang activity but stressed the overall safety of Socorro schools.
"We use all of our resources to steer these kids in the right direction," he said.
http://www.elpasotimes.com/apps/pbcs.dl ... 60334/1001