Murphy's Law

Year after year, Murphy school district officials watched their students die in a hail of violence. They decided to take matters into their own hands.

The killings are what stick in the minds of teachers and administrators.

"I always listen when I hear of shootings on the news," says Virginia Alcocer, principal of the Garcia School in the Murphy Elementary School District. "And I say, 'Please don't let it be our area, please don't let it be kids from our schools.'"

But over the past decade, it often has been. "It seems like we've gone to one or two funerals every year," says Jeanetta Martinez, a fifth-grade teacher at Kuban School, who has taught in the district for more than 20 years.

Clay McAllester, principal at Kuban School.
Clay McAllester, principal at Kuban School.
Virginia Alcocer, principal at Garcia School.
Paolo Vescia
Virginia Alcocer, principal at Garcia School.

School officials and community leaders characterize what has gone on here and in other neighborhoods afflicted by gang and juvenile violence as a quiet massacre -- Columbine on the installment plan.

"Sometimes it makes the front pages," says Jose Leyba, superintendent of the neighboring Isaac Elementary School District, "but usually it shows up in a small box in the paper. These are mostly brown kids and black kids, so it doesn't bring the attention that other killings do."

The neighborhood straddling Murphy and part of the Isaac district, defined by the 85009 zip code, has consistently been among the top 10 areas in Maricopa County for juvenile crime and violence.

In the past seven years, 31 kids under age 19 have been killed there -- mostly with guns and about half because of gang violence. The dead include students and former students from schools in both districts. Another five youngsters have taken their own lives. By far, most of the victims have been Hispanic boys.

The killings haven't happened on school grounds, or provoked the public shock and soul-searching that followed the tragic killings of middle-class children at Colorado's Columbine High School and other predominantly white schools. (By comparison, the area of northeast Phoenix, defined by zip code 85254, bordering Scottsdale, has had one homicide and six suicides over the past seven years.)

In the largely Hispanic, impoverished Murphy and Isaac districts, the killings have come one and two at a time, usually at nights and on weekends.

"That's part of the problem with some of our troubled kids," says Leyba. "Monday through Friday we can keep an eye on them. But on the weekends, we can't control their environment. Unfortunately, the environment controls a lot of what they do."

Children have been killed at parties and parks, in cars, bedrooms, backyards and at a few of the area's many vacant lots. Some have been killed outside the area, when one gang has crossed another's path, or drug deals have gone bad.

"Usually what happens is you see a car wash," says Pamela Jones, curriculum director for the Murphy district, "because most of these families don't have the money to bury their children."

The toll reflects the enormity of the task facing schools in areas where protecting children has become as important as teaching them.

"Around here, it really has to be safety first," says Daniel Cooper, assistant principal at Murphy's Kuban Elementary School, at 31st Avenue and Sherman Street. "If our kids don't feel safe here, or the families don't feel safe here, the kids won't learn."

School officials and community leaders say the killings are also emblematic of the social vacuum in which Murphy, Isaac and many other school districts in hard-pressed communities must function.

That vacuum, experts say, comes from concentrations of poverty and families broken by abuse, alcoholism, transience, crime and drugs. Those factors have mixed with the easy accessibility of guns to produce numbing levels of violence.

"What's happening in these neighborhoods," says Michael McCort, a commander with the Phoenix Police Department who has studied gang violence and developed a violence prevention strategy for the city, "really requires a fundamental rethinking of our approaches. We spend a lot of money on hiring police officers. That may be a necessary thing to keep people safe. But we don't put enough into the kind of prevention this problem really needs."

In the Murphy area, that effort to rethink prevention has been going on for some time. Unlike anywhere else in Phoenix, it is the school district that has taken the lead.

For more than a decade, the district has scrambled for every available dime to expand the traditional schoolhouse role from that of teaching children to educating and caring for families.

It was the first inner-city district to sponsor comprehensive after-school programs; the first to house an office of the Arizona Department of Economic Security at a school; the first to host a satellite Boys and Girls Club; and the first to work with the City of Phoenix on what eventually became known as community policing.

Community leaders contend that it makes good sense to turn schools into all-purpose community and youth centers. Schools are where the children are. And in economically depressed districts like Murphy and Isaac, they are about the only public agencies in the neighborhoods.

However, years of inadequate funding by the state have left the schools barely equipped to cover basic academic standards, let alone assume the role of community organizer and protector. And traditionalists in education have resisted opening their schools to anything but basic education.

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