Some Oakland students face life-or-death decisions as early as elementary school
OAKLAND — Josue Lopez-Gil was only one year out of elementary school when he was shot and killed after dark on Memorial Day, a few blocks from his home. Police say the suspect is a 13-year-old classmate affiliated with a street gang, and that the shooting appeared to be gang-related.
Since then, many in the neighborhood have lived with the fear of retaliation — either against the alleged killer or against the young witnesses. A number of children at Josue’s middle school, Roots International, and his old elementary school, Lockwood, have received serious threats, said Laura Moran, the chief services officer for the Oakland Unified School District.
“I’ve gone to sleep every night just praying nothing is going to happen,” said Moran, who has assigned a police officer to the front of the middle school for the final days of the semester.
In a city and a region with widely divided incomes and lifestyles, the very nature of childhood differs dramatically by neighborhood, including the ability to live without fear or to make mistakes without potentially grave consequences.
For children in Oakland’s more violent areas, even decisions as seemingly harmless as the route home from school or their choice of friends could prove to have high stakes — even at the age of 9 or 10. Some learn as young as kindergarten to hit the ground when they hear gunshots, or to run home when they step off the bus. Gang-resistance training begins in the fourth grade. Some students say it should start earlier.
“I know first-grade wannabe gangsters,” said Javier Perez, 11, after a gang-prevention graduation ceremony last month at Fruitvale Elementary School.
Of the nearly 1,800 Oakland seventh-graders who took the California Healthy Kids Survey in the fall of 2007 — the youngest age group surveyed about risky behaviors — about 14 percent said they belonged to a gang, and 9 percent said they had carried a gun to school. More than one-third said they feared they would be beaten up.
Sondra Aguilera, principal of Esperanza Elementary School in East Oakland, said she tells parents they need to pay even more attention to their children as they grow older, even as their kids push for independence.
“Some parents think, ‘Well, they’re older. They can take care of themselves,'”‰” she said.
Aguilera said gang members recently approached two boys from her elementary school while they were playing in a neighborhood park; the boys ran home and told their families, who quickly brought it to her attention. None of her students is involved with gangs, she said, but the allure is palpable — sometimes surfacing in notebook doodles that are briskly confiscated and brought to her office.
Earlier this year, Aguilera’s worries came to a head when gang symbols appeared in the boys’ bathroom. When she gathered the fifth-grade boys together to talk about it, she was dismayed by what she learned: “They have no affiliation at all with these gangs, but it’s something that intrigues them.”
Aguilera said she wants her students to develop a strong connection to their school so that they won’t be tempted to seek those connections elsewhere. She said when she came of age in the Los Angeles area, she was so involved with sports she was able to block out the negative elements around her. Next year, she said, Esperanza will start year-round athletic teams for the elementary school children, “so they feel a part of something.”
Aguilera says she and her staff try to teach children right from wrong, and to hold them accountable for their missteps without vilifying them. Still, she said, “you’re always, in the back of your mind, worried about individual students and the decisions they make.”
Barbara McClung, who supervises behavioral health services in the Oakland Unified School District, said the older students at Lockwood Elementary were trying to make sense of the boy’s death and what it might mean for their futures.
In the days after the tragedy, she said, some children raised concerns about bullying and gangs — the intense, sometimes physical, pressure to join them, and the risks.
“They’re at that age, the fourth- and fifth-graders, where they’re thinking about their identity and who they are going to become,” McClung said. “They want to be kids. They want to have a childhood amid the stress that’s around them.”