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.

"There was a lot more defiance, a lot more disrespect, and he was a lot more aggressive," she says. "He didn't care about anything, and wanted to stay out all night and sleep all day. At Azteca, they deal more with the gang issue, where at a normal school, it's like, 'Gangs aren't allowed.'

"Well, when you have children who are already involved in gangs, telling them 'It's not allowed' isn't going to work."

During the summer, Robert was arrested several times -- truancy, breaking car windows, residential burglary, petty theft. He's admitted to doing cocaine, inhalants and pot. When school started in the fall, Robert attended class at Isaac only twice in two months. Finally, his probation officer had Robert sent to the Durango juvenile facility for 48 days. While in lockup, Robert took plastic eating utensils and carved "31" into his hand.

Laura Beingessner

He may have failed his classes, but Robert can provide an expert summary of his neighborhood's gangs, pointing all directions of the compass and spouting street numbers. Over there is Wedgewood, over there is Pheoniquera, over there is Hollywood and, there, Doblé.

Yet he's never heard of LCM, one of the largest Hispanic gangs in the Valley. At Robert's age, his neighborhood is his whole world. The students at Azteca cannot understand why a newspaper would do a story on them, why so many observers come into their class, and have difficulty describing their lives in comparative terms. Abusive families are normal. Poverty is normal. And most of all, gangs are normal -- an integral part of west Phoenix life that occasionally pushes to the foreground of their lives.

Robert would leave Doblé, he says, if he could stay in San Diego with his nana, his aunt. He says his nana is strict and would keep him out of trouble.

Only the last time he visited San Diego, money started disappearing from his nana's purse. He says she sent Robert back to his mother in Phoenix and doesn't want him to return.

Robert sees his father, but only about once a month. The visits are held in the presence of his father's parole officer. His father served time in prison for a domestic abuse incident and is now on lifetime probation.

Before he lost his job, Robert's father was a jet mechanic at Luke Air Force Base.

The obviousness of Robert's career goal doesn't surprise Goss.

"These kids need dads," he says. "While a gang may be a sick parody of a family, it's still a family."

It's Robert's turn in the inquisitorial hot seat over the fight in the alley, and Goss is getting angry. The boy is slumped in his chair, looking defiant. Robert makes eye contact like an adult.

"I didn't have any knife; they must have seen my belt," Robert says.

Robert lifts his shirt and flips out a foot of tail on his white cloth belt. The inexpensive makeshift quality of the belt is enough to give you pause, a twinge of sympathy for a boy who's making do with very little.

The belt is also entirely unbelievable as something that could be mistaken for a knife.

After the interrogation, Robert is told a decision whether to arrest him is pending. If he's arrested again, Goss says, he'll probably get sent to Adobe Mountain.

Robert's probation officer, Monty Brown, practically pleads with the boy.

"You've got to use your head, or you're going down for the count," Brown says. "That's not threatening you, that's just telling you the truth."

Goss is equally exasperated, and privately confesses a lack of faith in Robert's rehabilitation.

"Unfortunately, I've got a really good country guess about this sort of thing," Goss says, "and I don't think he's going to make it. He's got the gang so deeply engraved in his psyche."

Later, authorities decide not to charge Robert or Dale in connection with the knife fight.

But the fight in the alley will not be the last for them. Both boys fight, but with a crucial difference in attitude.

Robert fights for respect and for fun. If somebody challenges him, he'll always accept. A reason isn't required.

But when Dale walks to school and gangbangers yell at him ("What are you looking at?"), he sends it right back at them ("I'm looking at you!"), and keeps walking. His most recent fight was a couple months ago. He was out with his girlfriend and his sister when another boy started harassing his girl. "Swearing and saying rude things," he says.

Dale threw a punch and together they fell to the ground, arms flailing.

"My sister was like, 'Stop! Stop! He's not worth it!'" Dale says, adding that his sister was afraid for him because she knew his opponent was in a gang.

Fighting with gang members is one of the quickest ways to end up in a gang yourself. Isaac Middle School police officers Lionel Espindola and Steve Scott understand this and, upon hearing a rumor of a dispute, will grab the two potential antagonists and sit them down.

"Their idea of sport is to fight; they're thinking it's going to give them respect and fear," says Hellen Carter, community services director for the Maricopa County Juvenile Probation Department. "You start to look at who you need to align yourself with to not get thumped on. And the gang will come to your defense."

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