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.

In recent years, Arizona schools trying to cope with gangs and violence -- including both Mesa High and Escuela Azteca -- have looked to the Safe Schools Program, an initiative launched in September 1994. The program was created by a governor's task force that consisted of a probation officer, a police officer, a representative from the Governor's Office, a representative from law-related education and four legislators.

The program requires schools that want the program to apply for funding each year. It doesn't come automatically. They are selected on the basis of on-campus violence, need for safety, and whether Safe Schools would supplant an existing program. Schools accepted for the program receive an on-campus probation officer and/or a police officer.

"One of the requirements for the program was that law-related education be an integral part of it," says Hellen Carter, director of the community services division of Maricopa County's juvenile probation department. "It was not designed to be a snag-and-bag. It was designed to develop relationships with the school and the juveniles and for that officer to be an integral part of that campus."

Carlos Ortiz is a Mesa High School junior who's been pressured by his gang friends to sell drugs for them.
Paolo Vescia
Carlos Ortiz is a Mesa High School junior who's been pressured by his gang friends to sell drugs for them.
Mesa High School juvenile probation officer Manny Chavez has modeled his brand of community activism on the example of the United Farm Workers.
Paolo Vescia
Mesa High School juvenile probation officer Manny Chavez has modeled his brand of community activism on the example of the United Farm Workers.

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The Safe Schools Program began with a budget of $1 million and 11 participating schools. The first year, Carter recalls, at least two of the Valley's districts with serious juvenile crime and gang problems -- Glendale and Washington -- didn't even bother to apply. But as word of the program's success has grown, schools have clamored to be included.

Safe Schools now takes in 72 schools (40 in Maricopa County), but because its budget has been locked at $7 million for the past two years, the state has been unable to meet growing demand from schools. This year, 45 other schools were denied entry into the program.

Carter, who sits on a legislative committee that reviews Safe Schools, thinks lawmakers will expand Safe Schools' budget this year, based on the proof of reduced violence at many of the schools in the program, and the fact that so many interested schools have been shut out.

Generally, the program appears to be effective. At most participating schools, officials have seen reports of violence increase in the first year, as kids begin confiding in the probation officer. And then the numbers start to drop.

At Mesa High, Safe Schools has been in place for the past four years. During the 1997-98 school year (the most recent year for which complete data are available), Mesa High reported 31 incidents of student violence (none of which was categorized as gang-related), for a rate of 11 per thousand students, considerably lower than the state average of 19 per thousand students.

During that same school year, Mesa High reported one serious injury as a result of a violent act on campus (for a rate of only .37 per thousand, compared to the state average of one per thousand).

At Azteca, the staff supplements Safe Schools with a strict Boys' Town-type program aimed at building students' social skills. The students earn points through consistent attendance, grades and proper conduct. They use the points to "purchase" prizes and outdoor trips.

The trips are led by probation officer Gary Goss, who often pays the expenses himself. Goss believes that showing students a dramatic contrast to street life in west Phoenix is key to keeping them focused on academic success.

"For a lot of them, it's the first time they've ever gone into a restaurant, the first time they've ever seen a forest, the first time they've been out of town," he says. "They talk about the freedom from fear and about not hearing gunshots going off or having police helicopters flying over their house. They also talk about how it's a lot easier for them to get along with each other -- everybody just wants to play and have fun."

The Azteca program is expensive -- it costs the district about three times as much to teach a student at Azteca than at a regular Isaac District middle school. But the cost, advocates point out, is far less than housing a delinquent student at Adobe Mountain or putting a kid on intensive probation.

During the 1997-98 school year, Azteca reported an attendance rate of 93 percent and a promotion rate of 94 percent. These figures are startling when you consider Azteca's student body consists of students transferred from other schools for truancy and disciplinary problems.

Such numbers offer a ray of hope that gang influence on school campuses can at least be contained, if not eliminated.

Pressure in Mesa

Carlos Ortiz has been surrounded by gangs most of his life. The Mesa High School junior moved to Phoenix from Durango, Mexico, when he was 4. Like most people who immigrate to the United States from Mexico, his parents hoped that the move would allow them to provide a better life for their child. They didn't count on the fact that it would also put them in proximity to gangs.

Ortiz is dark-complexioned, with a medium build, and a hint of a goatee that makes him look older than his 16 years. His uniform of choice inevitably includes a tee shirt and baggy velour pants that cover his tennis shoes. He dreams of one day running his own auto body shop.

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