By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Completed examples of the assignment line hallways in Isaac's middle schools, crude drawings in crayon with scrawled captions such as "I used to be a circle, but now I'm a clock" and "I used to be a circle, but now I'm a cactus."
The exercise is about potential. About becoming. The message: You are not yet grown, and can evolve into whomever you want to be.
And the middle schoolers, who dress in blue and white uniforms, are easily imagined as unfilled circles waiting to become more defined.
At the Escuela Azteca alternative middle school, a 13-year-old we'll call Robert sits at a desk. He's thin and pale, and has three tattoos.
Robert attended Isaac Middle School before he was transferred to Azteca two months ago for disciplinary problems. He says he hated going to Isaac. He hated the classes. The teachers would yell at him for little things, he says, like not having a pencil.
And they're not the only ones who hassle him, he says. The police have arrested him more times than he can remember. Robert has six complaints filed against him. Three are felonies.
It's all lies and misunderstandings, he says. Like the burglary -- Robert was just sitting there, in the backyard, while his friend broke into the house. The friend used to live there, or so he told Robert, and was just trying to get some of his clothes back. No, he wasn't a lookout. "How could I be a lookout if I was sitting down?" he challenges.
In August, Robert says, he was jumped into a gang, 31st Avenue Doblé, also called Wetback Power. He got high before they beat on him so he wouldn't be scared. At night, he says, he and his newfound gang friends drive around the Valley, get high, shoot guns and look for rival gang members to beat up. If they can't find rival members, he says, they'll look for anybody else they can pound on.
His mother has considerable praise for Azteca. The lack of personal attention at Isaac Middle School, she says, is one of the reasons her son got into a gang. She says his attitude is improving now, he's going to school regularly and is less interested in hanging out with his gang friends.
But the Azteca staffers are less certain.
They've heard reports from Robert's probation officer that high-profile gang members go in and out of his home. And they've seen Robert sitting in class. Not paying attention. Writing his gang's abbreviation "WPB" on his hand, over and over again.
Robert insists he hates getting in trouble. He says he'd get out of Doblé in a second, if they'd let him. But leaving the gang means showing disrespect, and that, he claims, will get him killed.
He says he doesn't want trouble. He says he definitely doesn't want to go to prison. He never wants to be arrested again.
But Robert believes that getting arrested is not his choice. He emits a sort of angry doomed fatalism.
Azteca's on-site juvenile probation officer, Gary Goss, senses this, and will try to persuade him otherwise. Goss stresses to Robert that he's only 13, and nobody is a failure at 13.
And Robert stares at Goss, slightly resentful at having to listen to such nonsense. Robert knows his destiny is part of some unseen machine that's always working against him. It's not up to him, he has already been defined.
Goss asks Robert: "Assuming you stay in the gang, where do you see yourself in five years?"
"In prison, probably," Robert says.
"What will you be in prison for?" Goss asks.
Robert looks him in the eye, and says, "Murder."
Goss tells 13-year-old Dale (not his real name) to take a seat in the Azteca school office. Dale's eyes are wide, wondering if he's in trouble. He is. Goss is about to grill him regarding an after-school fight he participated in where Robert reportedly threatened other students with a knife.
While in-school fights have been reduced by 27 percent in Isaac schools since the implementation of the Safe Schools Program in 1994, after-school fights are still very common. They're also a direct portal into gangs.
Isaac Middle School Officer Steve Scott says gangbangers from the local high school "hang out on the street corners like vultures waiting for our kids." The officers often cruise the neighborhood on their mountain bikes, looking to scare such predators away.
"I want to talk about the incident that occurred after school on Friday," Goss says, beginning the interview, "the one involving the knife."
In a quiet, guilt-ridden voice, Dale explains that he and his friends were chasing a few other students after school -- down an alley, in Robert's brother's car. It was all in fun, no big thing, they've done it before. Only this time, the game suddenly turned violent when Robert pulled a knife.
"Robert pulled out the knife, and then Frank [another classmate] said, 'I'm going to f-you up.' And we said, 'Why? We were just playing around.' And he said, 'Well, I'm not just playing around.' And then he goes, 'Well, you gonna stab me?' And Robert said, 'No, I just got it in my hand.' And he's like: 'You watch, I'm going to go home and get a gun and kill you guys.'"