Mentor's Lament

Even tough, effective teachers like Angela Kirkendall struggle to shield inner-city kids from the lure of the streets

Your homie till the end,
N---- dogg
Klein says he doesn't like saying so, but he thinks the note indicates these boys may already be beyond help.

"Once they get themselves sort of committed to gang behavior--and these two may be thinking in those terms--then anything we do to them or for them . . . they will bastardize. They will contort it, turn it around to their own benefit. 'We're so tough they gotta give us a football player,' or 'a football player isn't worth shit, man, because he doesn't know the streets.' Whatever it is, they'll use it to reinforce their bonds together," Klein says. "So if you don't intervene before that tipping point, you may very well be too late.

"And that's a terrible message. I hate that message. But the fact is the group process that gets involved with these kids, especially once they become committed to gang behavior, that group process turns everything around. And they use it to go back to the homies on the corner and say, 'Hey, the motherfuckers couldn't handle us.' Or whatever the case may be, they use it to reinforce their own bonds together. And all the well-meaning things that we can do in the world can be contorted that way."

Sergeant Ferrero agrees that schools can only do so much to keep children from identifying with gangs. More influential, he says, is the environment children go home to.

"If we don't do something about the environment, I don't care what kind of school we send these kids to," he says. "They get sucked back into that environment. That's what's so sad."

However, Rose Linda School may be missing out on another good opportunity to combat juvenile delinquency. Four years ago, the state began a program, Safe Schools, which places juvenile probation officers at schools to guarantee a continuity between school and criminal-justice agencies. Safe Schools also allows for quick handling of cases of delinquency on campus.

Hellen Carter serves on a state committee that oversees the program. She's also director of community services for the Maricopa County Juvenile Probation Department, and she says initial studies show that the Safe Schools program is having a significant effect curbing student misbehavior at certain schools. But the Legislature has only funded the program so that 21 probation officers currently serve 34 schools. Carter says the Roosevelt School District applied to Safe Schools so that probation officers would be put in all of its schools, including Rose Linda, but the district was turned down. Until the Legislature approves more money for the program, Carter says, schools like Rose Linda are out of luck.

But even if Rose Linda had a probation officer to bolster the discipline meted out by a remarkable teacher like Angela Kirkendall, the school might never be able to prevent some children from abusing drugs, dropping out of school and joining gangs.

"The majority of the kids, even many of those who drop out, won't become committed gang members," says USC's Klein. "The difficulty is predicting, identifying which ones will. And that gets really very tough. We're not good at that.

"There's not much a school can do about that. Until we get better at identifying who's likely to join and who's not, I think the best and safest and most civil-rightsy thing to do is to wait for the behavior to start showing. It's the behavior that gives you, in any case, the right to intervene in a kid's life."

In the meantime, Kirkendall intervenes in the lives of students like Miguel, who was on a disastrous academic path until he made up three years of schooling in a single term and earned the right to stand on stage for making the honor roll.

A few days after his excitement at making honor roll, Miguel admits that he still hasn't told his father--the one who had rearranged his schedule to help Miguel raise his grades--about his achievement. Asked why, Miguel just shrugs.

But late one afternoon, as the other students file out to go home, Miguel signals that he wants to talk. He quickly drops his usual smiling bravado and begins whispering.

He hasn't told his father about making honor roll because his father hasn't been home in a week. His father's an alcoholic, Miguel says, and he and his mother have been fighting.

"We think he has someone else. I don't like looking at my mom crying," Miguel says. "We're going to leave. We gave him a chance before, but we're going to leave him. I don't feel for him anymore."

Miguel also describes standing up to his 21-year-old sister's boyfriend, who has been beating her. And he's concerned about his mother, who watches other people's children during the day and cleans other people's homes at night. Miguel says she refuses to get medical attention for an injured arm.

"I don't know if I'm going to school next year. We want to hide from my dad. I feel like just not living anymore. I have too many problems in my life," says the 12-year-old.

Miguel's mother says she knows that her son has been deeply affected by the troubles in his home. She asks that his real name not be used. As of press time, she was still trying to raise enough money to move to another state.

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