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.

Goss sighs, a bit exasperated. He's been conducting interrogations like this since he was first hired as a Maricopa County parole officer in 1964, but the students at Escuela Azteca require extra patience. Each has been transferred from the regular Isaac District middle schools for things like assaulting other students, drug abuse and pregnancy. Trying to interview them is like exploring an enormous cavern with a penlight. The whole picture is never illuminated, only imagined after hundreds of fine-point questions.

And extracting the truth from Dale should be easier; he's one of Goss' favorite students. When Dale first came to Azteca last year, he was in full rebellion and had a tragic history. Dale never met his father and had an abusive uncle. Worse, Dale's drug-addicted mother prodded him into committing residential burglaries to support her habit. Dale and his mom would break into houses in their neighborhood, and she would fence the stolen property. The burglaries resulted in Dale's first arrest.

Goss and his partner, Bill Morrison, worked hard with Dale, trying to build his social skills. They took him on class camping and fishing trips.

Laura Beingessner

By most indications, their efforts have been effective. Dale's grandmother, now his guardian, says he's "a completely different person" than he was a year ago. He goes to school, avoids fighting and wants to enlist in the Army. His first arrest was seemingly his last.

But then this happened -- the incident in the alley. Dale's version has been sanitized for Goss, but it's still an example of how violence occurs at the middle school level. Young kids will hang with older, more hard-core teens, an after-school fight breaks out, there's one-upmanship and somebody shows a weapon. Later, Goss says that "the only reason that wasn't a homicide or an assault with a deadly weapon is divine intervention -- for some reason, it just didn't happen."

Now, it's crucial that Goss makes sure the fight is really over, to prevent any feud that can scare participants into aligning themselves with a gang for protection -- or in the case of some of the participants, further aligning themselves.

"I disapprove of the behavior, I don't disapprove of you," Goss tells Dale. "I want you to have a job, I want you to have a credit rating, I want you to have a house -- whatever happiness means to you. But I need something back: I need you to care about yourself. At least as much as I care about you. And I need you to stop acting like a freakin' hoodlum. I'm not mad at you. I like you a ton, and you know that. But you need to make better decisions."

Dale nods guiltily.

Goss lets his message sink in for a moment, then switches tracks. "How's your sister doing?" he asks.

Dale explains his 15-year-old sister has run away with her baby. They went to her 22-year-old boyfriend's house. No, the boyfriend is not the baby's father.

She's been gone two weeks, and Dale bursts into tears as he tries to explain that no one knows when she's coming home.

Goss quickly gets up, walks behind Dale and puts his hands on his shoulders. Dale looks very small. Goss presses on Dale's shoulders, as if trying to push all his strength down into the boy.

Robert is surprisingly specific about what he wants to be when he grows up. He wants to be a jet mechanic at Luke Air Force Base.

For a while, he settled for a weekend job selling boxes of candy with Dale. The boys asked passers-by at East Valley strip malls to buy candy to keep inner-city youths out of gangs. Robert says he sold about nine boxes per day, earning $1.50 for each $6 box.

It wasn't much money, especially considering that Robert says he could earn $200 to $300 a day selling crack for his gang.

Robert and Dale met at Azteca and have at least two things in common. They both have absent fathers, and they're both about the same size -- a medium stature that gets them pushed around by the older kids.

To compensate, Dale eats constantly and lifts weights, trying to get bigger and tougher. Robert has his gang to back him, and throws around his bravado confidence in a way that Dale thinks is cool. They started hanging out after school together, fixing up a go-cart in Dale's garage. Dale still refers to time spent with other kids as "playing."

The boys don't play as much anymore, Dale says, because Robert no longer wanted to play with the go-cart. He wanted to go out and "get in trouble."

Robert has a long history of problems in school, but his arrest record begins just last May. Prior to that, his probation officer says, Robert was certainly committing crimes, but wasn't as reckless.

Robert's mother says her son became involved with Doblé last year after the family moved to the 35th and McDowell area. Previously, they lived at 65th and Thomas, where gangs "weren't as visible at the junior high level." She says she first noticed a change in her son's behavior last year.

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