Increase in gang activity seen in San Jose schools

By Mark Gomez
Mercury News
Article Launched: 06/11/2008 01:36:05 AM PDT

Police and school officials called it an anomaly: A 16-year-old girl stabbed a fellow student on the Oak Grove High School campus more than 10 times in the back.

But while such vicious gang-related attacks are rare at San Jose schools, this one underscored the growing influence and impact gangs are having on students throughout the city.

Gang-related incidents involving school-age kids are on the rise – up more than 35 percent in 2007 for ages 10-19. Most are non-violent acts, such as truancy or probation violations, but police are closely tracking signs of gang affiliation because they are concerned about an escalation of violence on San Jose’s streets and school campuses.

Of the 165 gang-related incidents investigated by police in the first three months of 2008, one-third happened on a school campus or originated on campus.

“These kids are growing up in neighborhoods where gangs are normal, so avoiding them is probably not an easy thing to do,” said Del Mar High Principal Jim Russell, who attacked his school’s gang problem head-on three years ago. “We’re surrounded in a community where gang activity goes on. Kids are being influenced.”

Students as young as fourth-graders are being affected, according to local gang experts.

A young girl in the Franklin-McKinley School District, a B-plus student, felt pressured to join a gang during the school year. In hopes of proving to peers that she was one of them, the girl brought a knife to school. She was expelled when school officials found the weapon, as required by state law.

It’s a trend that worries Superintendent John Porter, who said more than half of the 24 students expelled this year in his district were dismissed for gang-related reasons. In several cases, students brought knives on campus.

“These kids are pressured so much to belong,” Porter said. “If you listen to the children, they truly do not want to do it. This is just pure protection.”

Rare violence

Though the vast majority of gang-related incidents with ties to schools are non-violent, students have been the targets of vicious attacks in recent weeks.

About a month ago, a 14-year-old freshman from Del Mar was walking home from school when he was approached by a group of red-clad Norteños. The gang members asked the boy, who school officials say is not involved with a gang, if he were a Sureño. He answered no, according to Russell.

The boy, who was wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey that was blue, the color blankociated with Sureños, was stabbed during the attack.

And then there’s the Oak Grove attack. On May 20, a 17-year-old girl was stabbed at least 10 times by a female student at the South San Jose school. The victim allegedly called her attacker a “buster,” a derogatory term for Norteño gang members. The 16-year-old suspect, who is being charged as an adult for attempted murder, admitted to being a gang member, according to court documents.

“The Oak Grove incident is an anomaly, as far as what happens at school,” said Lt. Rikki Goede, head of the San Jose Police Department’s gang investigations unit. “Kids are very safe at school.”

When a serious incident happens on campus, police, city and school officials are quick to spring into action with counseling and intervention efforts.

In March, a large fight broke out on the campus of Yerba Buena High on the city’s East Side while school was in session. Twenty-six police officers descended upon the school just after 10 a.m. and were met with flying bottles and cans. Officers handed out 23 citations to students.

Later that night, police officers, with the cooperation of school and probation officials, visited the homes of every student involved. Their intent was to make parents aware of what happened at the school and warn students and parents about the consequences of ganglike behavior.

Some of the teens were already in some sort of gang prevention program.

“There is nothing sweet about ending up in prison,” said police Capt. Richard Calderon, who has spent much of his 28-year career with gang-involved youths. “We tell them very bluntly about the horrors of being in prison.”

At Del Mar, located on the city’s west side, the school’s problem with gangs reached a boiling point about three years ago. Russell sought a more aggressive approach.

Del Mar began holding regular meetings with police and members of the gang prevention task force, including experts from the city and community organizations.

“We used those groups to start some gang-intervention work with students we felt were at risk of being involved, or were involved,” Russell said. “Over the last few years, our gang problem has essentially become very minimal to non-existent.”

‘Growing concern’

Across town, at Seven Trees Elementary School near Monterey Road and Capitol Expressway, Principal Dan Lairon called gangs “a growing concern.” Lairon knows many of his sixth-graders who will be making the jump from elementary to middle school will be pressured to join a gang. That’s why Lairon has the students attend a presentation by ex-gang members to hear firsthand about what gangs really have to offer.

Officials are seeing more school-age children dressing like gang members, to be fashionable or to fit in or because they are wannabes. It is a dangerous choice in a city shared by rival Mexican gangs, the Norteños and Sureños, who have been engaging in a bloody turf war for the past few years.

Police and school officials said educating parents about the warning signs – most notably the colors and style of dress blankociated with gangs – is one of the biggest challenges they face. Calderon pleads with parents to make sure their children aren’t dressing like gangbangers or hanging out with other youths caught up in that lifestyle.

“How many more incidents do we need when youth are attacked because of the way they look?” Calderon said. “The question is asked, ‘What do you claim?’ The answer doesn’t matter. The follow-up to the question will be an attack.”

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