Tales Out of School

It's tough to be a teen. But what happens when your friends and family are all in gangs? Five students talk about growing up in the Valley's roughest neighborhoods.

Lambert Ormsby is graduating with the Mesa High School class of 2000.

He'll be only one of about 800 students donning the cap and gown next spring, and, at 21, he'll be at least three years older than most of the other graduates. But if it's taken him longer than his classmates to reach the academic finish line, Ormsby's accomplishment is particularly impressive because he's had a longer, harder road to travel.

Five years ago, the thought of this fourth-generation east Mesa gangbanger -- blinded at 15 by a shotgun blast from a rival gang member -- ever clutching a diploma in his hand seemed about as implausible as him leading a manned mission to Neptune. That is, unless he'd stolen the diploma from a classmate at gunpoint.

Laura Beingessner

For many kids like Ormsby, who grow up ensnared in a life of casual gang violence, school is more a diversion from the streets or a gang recruiting center than a real source of education.

Other kids in the neighborhood manage to avoid the thug life, but they agonize over how close they can get to gang friends without being drawn into the line of fire.

New Times writers recently spent several weeks on the campuses of Mesa High School and Escuela Azteca, two schools that struggle to cope with gang issues because they draw their students from some of the Valley's toughest neighborhoods.

Escuela Azteca is an alternative middle school in the Isaac School District, the last resort for many troubled kids. In the past seven years, 31 kids under age 19 have been killed in the area that takes in Isaac and part of the neighboring Murphy School District. Most of the violence has been blamed on gang activity. The area is the turf of Hispanic gangs such as Wedgewood, Pheoniquera, Hollywood and, most of all, 31st Avenue Doblé.

Inside Azteca, an educational experiment is in progress, a combination of intensive supervision and strict academic requirements. Each of Azteca's 17 currently enrolled students has been transferred from Isaac or Pueblo del Sol middle schools for offenses such as assaulting teachers, truancy and drug abuse. Most are either on probation or have charges pending.

Mesa High School is located in the heart of Area 5, a section of east Mesa that is the poorest in the Mesa Unified District. A school with more than 3,000 students, Mesa High is dominated by an uneasy mix of Hispanic and Anglo students. On the surface, there seem to be few problems. During lunch breaks, diverse combinations of students in baggy jeans and pullovers camp around the main building, shooting the breeze, listening to music and dipping into each other's bags of potato chips.

Unseen, however, is a web of tension: between Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans; between a small group of white supremacists and the rest of the campus; and, always, the quiet menace of gangs.

Mesa High has a handful of major gangs on campus -- most notably Wetback Power and Copitas -- but Ormsby's hard-earned perspective is an unusual one. In his short life, he's profited from gang life and been severely victimized by it. He's found family identification from it, and ultimately felt betrayed by it.

Ormsby remembers that his most aggressive on-campus behavior was during his middle-school years, when he was eager to prove that he was the toughest kid around. He says that even before that, when he was in fourth and fifth grades, he would carry machetes and hatchets to school and pound them on his desk in front of stunned teachers.

His recollections are consistent with the stories told by many high school students who remember feeling more threatened by gangs at the middle school and junior high levels than at high school. They talk of being frozen, helpless, on the playground while gang kids would pick out random victims and beat them down.

Self-admitted gang membership is actually much higher among seventh and eighth graders than among high school students, according to a 1998 survey by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission. These numbers can be at least partly explained by the fact that many gang members drop out of school by the time they reach high school. Also, by the time they reach their mid-teens, gang members are less willing to admit that they're involved with gangs (even for an anonymous survey), because they don't want to focus additional scrutiny on themselves.

If gang violence seems more common at middle schools and junior highs than high schools, it doesn't mean that high schools are spared from the effects of gangs. It simply means that by the time they hit their mid-teens, gang members are no longer so eager to show off their toughness at school. They've become savvy enough to know that it's in their best interest to keep to themselves and avoid trouble at school, because they've got enough trouble on the streets to occupy their attention.

As a result, gang intimidation on high school campuses tends to be more subtle. Often, it manifests itself in stare-downs or dirty looks. For some kids, it means facing the pressure of being pushed to join gangs, or help them commit crimes. It's a fear that comes from knowing that no matter what decision you make, you may end up paying a heavy price.

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