Tales Out of School

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.

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.

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."

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.

He's a sweet, sensitive kid whose personal insecurities have frequently made him vulnerable to gang pressures. He wants to be accepted -- he sees redeeming qualities in many gang kids -- so whenever they ask him to join, he is tempted to say yes.

Ortiz attended Papago Elementary in Phoenix. When he was 13, his family moved to Mesa, where he went to Mesa Junior High.

He says that gangbangers at the school liked to make examples of other students by beating them up on the playground. It was a way of showing off for their gang peers, of asserting their control over the school environment.

"They'd always be together in one group," Ortiz says. "They'd go to different people and pick on them. And they'd go fight them, just to fight them. For no specific reason."

He remembers the feeling of helplessness that would overtake him whenever he saw these outbreaks of random violence.

"I was afraid," Ortiz says. "When I'd see people getting hurt by gangs, I'd get scared, because I could picture myself being that young kid getting hurt. They'd take someone into a corner and just beat them up, in between five or six different people.

"Everyone was too afraid to stop them, because if you tried to stop them and they figured out who you were, they'd be after you. I think that's why a lot of little kids are getting into more gang activity now, because they see all the stuff that's going around, and they say, 'If I join a gang, they won't harm me. So I'll just be with them for a while.'"

It's a rationale that very nearly hooked Ortiz himself. He'd always gotten along with the bangers in his neighborhood. So when he was in eighth grade, they asked him to join.

"They were in a group, but the leader came up by himself and said, 'You've been our friend, do you want to join our gang?' It's like a life-or-death situation. If you say no, you're afraid they'll kill you. But if you say yes, you're in for life."

Ortiz didn't know how to respond. He meekly told the leader that he'd have to think about it. He agonized over the decision for days, before telling the gang members that his answer was no. "They respected my decision," he says. "But you kind of do get nervous saying no to their face."

Ortiz might have given a different answer if not for the guidance of Manny Chavez, a juvenile probation officer who's been assigned to both Mesa High School and Mesa Junior High for the past four years.

Chavez is a political activist and community organizer who throws himself into his school responsibilities with a rare zeal. He spends every spare moment he can working with at-risk kids, trying to offer positive alternatives for them. He's created a ballet folklorico dance troupe. He coaches a soccer team. And four years ago, Chavez created an on-campus club called Si Se Puede (Yes You Can).

Chavez was a farm worker when he was young, and he grew up to befriend the late United Farm Workers leader Cesar Ch#aacute;vez (no relation). As a result, the probation officer has adopted the UFW as a model example of how to empower a community whose interests are being ignored.

He's used Si Se Puede to organize voter-registration drives, put together charitable events and rally political action -- such as a recent protest outside Mesa Lutheran Hospital about Gricelda Zamora Gonzalez, a 13-year-old girl who died of a burst appendix after being misdiagnosed with gastritis at the hospital's emergency room.

But Chavez merely oversees the club, he doesn't run it. He sits back and lets students decide what moves they want to make. In a way, he takes the same approach with gang issues.

When Ortiz came to him four years ago and said that he'd been asked to join a gang, Chavez didn't tell him what to do. He simply offered a maxim to inform Ortiz's decision: "Every bad thing you do in life has consequences."

When Ortiz talks about Chavez's impact on his life, his eyes get watery and his voice cracks with emotion. Over the past four years, whenever Ortiz has been tempted by the gang life, he's turned to Chavez. When gang leaders asked him to sell drugs for them, he wrote letters to Chavez, pouring out his confusion.

He credits Chavez and school officials with helping to contain gang presence at Mesa High, but he also says that high school gang kids tend to be more controlled on campus than their junior high cohorts. He says that by the time they reach high school age, gang kids have matured enough to realize it's not in their best interests to stir up trouble at school. He says they often look upon school as "free time," a refuge where they don't have to worry about being hassled by the law or rival gangs.

"They mainly keep to themselves," Ortiz says. "When they're in school, they respect that. But when they get out in the street, it's neighborhood against neighborhood." -- Gilbert Garcia

Battling Back

Xavier Lopez, 16, is a junior at Mesa High. He's tall, skinny and wears wire-rim glasses. If not for his cool, subdued demeanor, he'd fit the classic stereotype of a bookish nerd. He's an only child, and has a maturity that his mother believes comes from having spent most of his life around adults.

Like Ortiz, Lopez considers himself a friend to many gang members. But, also like Ortiz, he's always wary of getting too close.

"I never tell gang members at school where I live," Lopez says. "It's not that I don't trust them, because some of them I do trust and are friends. It's just that if I'm being associated with them by another gang, and if something happens, the consequences may come down on me. Or if they get into something, they might come to my house looking for refuge. I don't want to put myself in the position where I have to defend them or anything."

Lopez's parents are divorced. His father lives in Phoenix, and he lives with his mother and stepfather. His mother works for Xicanindio Artes Inc., a Mesa arts organization, and his stepfather is an artist. The walls of their home are filled with his stepfather's paintings and Native American masks that his mother has picked up over the years. The art influence has rubbed off on Xavier. He talks of going to art school and doing computer animation or drafting for a living.

Three years ago, Lopez's family moved from central Mesa to east Mesa, because it was the only part of town where his mother could afford to buy a house. Moving into the Area 5 section of town, a region known for its rampant gang problems, worried her.

"That was one of my greatest fears about him going to high school," says Dina Lopez, Xavier's mother. "I've always tried to be very open with him about my fears, and sometimes he thinks that I tend to be overprotective, but I explain to him that he's my only son."

Lopez's first two years at Mesa High were smooth enough, but his junior year has been wracked with turmoil almost from the beginning.

Lopez began the year as a member of the school's soccer team. The team includes many members of Wetback Power, a gang made up of Mexican nationals. Early in the school year, one Mexican national member of the team -- who Lopez believes is not a gang member -- began taunting him. With his Wetback Power friends cheering him on, the Mexican national kid insulted Lopez.

"He'd say I was gay, call me a bunch of stupid names, throw the ball at me, stuff like that," Lopez says.

The encounters were classic examples of the hostility that frequently surfaces between Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals. Two months ago, the abuse went from verbal to physical.

"It had been raining and we were all out there playing soccer in the rain," Lopez says. "And then lightning started, so we were supposed to come inside. I went and got the ball, and they all said, 'Let's throw him in the water.'

"The one that actually pursued it was the one who'd been bugging me. He threw me in the water, and I was waist-deep in water. I got mad, and I got up and hit him. So we started fighting, and the coach got there and sent me to the nurse's office. And the other kid went inside with all his friends."

Lopez had a big welt over his eye and his nose was so badly bruised that doctors initially thought it might be broken. Both he and the other kid received five-day school suspensions that were eventually reduced to two days. After the fight, Lopez couldn't face dealing with his nemesis and an aggressive support group of gang friends. So he quit the soccer team.

Lopez says that fights like the one he experienced are rare on campus, but often happen immediately after school.

"At Mesa High, you always hear about how they went to some park after school, and it's two rival gangs that are going to fight," he says. "Or they'll go to a car wash or something."

Ortiz says he recently saw a gang fight break out after school when he was driving through east Mesa. Rival gang members threw signs at each other, then immediately pulled into a corner gas station. The gang members brawled, seemingly oblivious to the scores of drivers who were observing them. They knew that onlookers would be too afraid to try to stop them. -- Gilbert Garcia

Seeing the Light

Lambert Ormsby should hate Stapley Park. It's on the grounds of this east Mesa hangout that a 15-year-old Ormsby took a buckshot for the barrio, putting himself in the line of a 12-gauge, double-barreled shotgun aimed at one of his gang friends. He was blinded by the gunfire.

But Ormsby still likes to walk around the park, albeit with the aid of a cane. He likes to sit on the benches and revisit the scarred childhood centered on this park, as though he can remold it into something beautiful, by sheer force of will. Maybe it's like the war veteran who feels a need to return to an old battle site, in an attempt to make sense of something senseless.

Stapley Park is a security blanket for Ormsby, a sense of home for someone who's never had a permanent home, a sense of community for someone who's had to learn to do without a family.

Ormsby was flashing gang signs before he could spell his own name. His older brother was a gangbanger. So, he says, were his dad and all his uncles. So were his cousins. So was his grandfather. Ormsby himself was a gang member by the time he hit third grade. "I really didn't have any choice," he says.

His father is half-Irish and his mother is Mexican American. You can see evidence of both in his striking features. With his dark hair slicked back, he looks a bit like a younger, Latino Jeff Bridges.

Ormsby was born in Phoenix. His parents separated when he was 4, and he moved to Mesa with his mother. He says his father was a talented craftsman who could fix anything. But his family, he says, was gripped by drug abuse and neglect.

Both of Ormsby's parents are still alive, but he refers to them in the past tense because they stopped being a part of his reality many years ago. He rarely hears from them these days, and when he does, they sound like strangers to him.

As a kid, Ormsby moved from one home to another. He recalls that between kindergarten and second grade, he attended 22 different schools. He and his two brothers and two sisters were caught in a hellish tug of war between their mother and father.

"My dad would pick us up at school and take us all the way out to Apache Junction," he says. "Then we'd live with him. And my mom would do the same thing. They were still going through a custody battle. They'd steal us back and forth."

Ormsby says that when he was a child, his mother beat his older brother, Adrian, with a curtain rod, and the state took him away to a children's home. He says that, eventually, Child Protective Services took him away as well, but he would continually run away and find his sisters. They'd wander the streets with nowhere to stay. To get by, he'd steal food from grocery stores.

When he returned home to live with his mom, they clashed, he says. Between the ages of 7 and 10, a pattern developed: She'd kick him out of the house and he'd live on the streets for a short spell. Then he'd come back home and the ugliness would begin again.

By then, Ormsby's most solid family unit was his gang. He'd spend nights smoking weed with the other gangbangers and drinking constantly. For easy money, he'd steal cars, and sell off the parts.

Ormsby spent most of his early school years at Lowell Elementary in Mesa. "From fourth grade up to about seventh or eighth grades, I was a violent kid," he says. "I kind of dominated the school. I was like, 'Get out of my way or I'm going to thump you on the ground.'"

At Mesa Junior High, he was suspended for sending a kid to the hospital. He claims the kid kept grabbing his hat, until Ormsby lost his temper. He says he "beat the kid down in the gym." He says when the school's principal started scolding him about the incident, he got angry, jumped up on a chair and socked the principal.

For Ormsby, the educational process became little more than a series of suspensions and expulsions. After being expelled from Mesa Junior High, he was sent to an alternative school, where he was suspended for punching the vice principal.

During this period, Ormsby frequently fought with Adrian, now 22, over their rival gang memberships.

"At times my brother and I would be cool with each other," he says. "At other times, we'd fight and want to kill each other. But I was going through rage at the time. I had a lot of hate since I was little, because I had my childhood taken away from me. Between the ages of 13 and 15, I had a black, cold, steel heart. I didn't care about nobody, I was always beating up people."

Despite his differences with Adrian, sibling loyalty transcended gang affiliation for Lambert in April 1994, when two members of another gang attacked his brother with orange pickers and sliced his head open.

"I wouldn't care if it was one-on-one, but this was two guys who did it," Ormsby says. "I caught one guy right around the corner from this park. I put my fist through the window of his car and hit him. I broke his nose and dragged him out and started beating him up. I said, 'Where's your friend?'"

The friend came by Stapley Park later that day with a gun, looking for Ormsby, but he was gone. Two weeks later, the same guy came by the park again and threw a beer bottle at Ormsby. It bounced off his head without causing any damage. Ormsby grabbed the guy. Ormsby's friends egged him on, telling him he had to get revenge. Ormsby threw the guy over a fence and slammed his head against a wire that was sticking out. It left the guy with a scar around his right eye.

A couple of weeks later, the guy came by the park yet again. It was a Friday. Ormsby had been suspended from his alternative school, so he was idly hanging around the park that day.

"He rolled by with a couple of guys and we started kicking the car, telling them to get out," Ormsby says. "They took off, and a couple of my friends went to get their guns. They weren't back in time, and the car came back. I was between a van and a car. I ducked and they let off one round of a 12-gauge. It shot a big old hole in the van.

"I looked back and I saw that one of my gang friends was behind me, jumping over a fence. I saw the shotgun leaning out of the car, and it was going over me. It wasn't aimed at me, because they didn't see me. But the shooter was the same guy that I beat up. I stood up, and put myself between the barrel and the guy jumping over the fence."

The pellets blistered his head. A couple of them lodged in his eyes. The blast was so intense that it whipped his head back.

"I felt instant numbness," he says. "I turned around to my friends and said, 'I got shot.' They said, 'No you didn't. You don't look like you did.'" Then blood started flowing out of his eyes.

He was sent to Scottsdale Memorial Hospital. He stayed there two weeks. He waited for his gang friends, the people he considered his true family, to come and see him, to find out how he was doing. None of them ever showed up.

Finally, months later, they came for a visit. They voiced the familiar refrain that revenge was in order. The loss of his eyesight must be avenged. But Ormsby already felt betrayed by their lack of concern after he'd put himself in the line of fire.

"I just got out of the gang after that," he says. "My head started clicking. It took that to open my eyes, to actually see. Now, I could walk down the street, and if there's a guy sitting on a curb crying, I'd sit there and cry with him. I have that much heart for a person now.

"I'm glad I'm blind. If somebody was to offer to give my sight back, I wouldn't take it. Because if I had my sight back, I'd probably go through rage. So many people dumped me on the head and walked away. If I saw them again, I'd probably go on a rampage."

Ormsby went back to alternative school, and the same kid who'd always loved to intimidate his classmates found that education wasn't such a bad thing after all. He amazed himself by getting an A in biology at Mesa High, which he attended for a year and a half, before his need for specialized attention sent him to the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind.

But despite his disability, he's determined to finish his high school education at Mesa High. So he'll spend the spring semester there. He relishes the idea of returning to campus and being a warm, friendly, positive force. He says he loves nothing better than making his classmates laugh.

Manny Chavez is gratified by Ormsby's progress, but he knows that the battle is never won with such a difficult case. "I've told him he can make a living as a speaker, because he has a lot to say, but he's still a little bit wild. He's not in the gang anymore, but he still hangs out with a lot of those guys. But it's because he doesn't have any real family. They're the closest he has to a family."

Ormsby is a bit schizophrenic where his old gang is concerned. On the one hand, he asserts that gang life is a dangerous dead end. But he takes some pride in the fact that he's a neighborhood legend because he sacrificed his eyesight for the barrio.

He hasn't completely avoided trouble in recent years, either. In 1996, he fathered a son named Angel with his then-girlfriend. Within a few months, he had fallen behind on his child-support payments and she took him to court. He was ordered to meet his financial responsibilities to his son.

Despite such lapses, Ormsby beams when he talks about Angel. He describes how Angel walks him around the neighborhood, how his son has become his pair of eyes. And he seems determined to steer Angel away from the destructive life that he's known. More and more, he says, his focus is on the next generation of would-be gangbangers.

"The kids that are in gangs now, you might not be able to change them, but maybe you can thin them out," he says. "You can talk to them and make them good, so that they know what they want for their kids. You can't change this generation, but you can change the next." -- Gilbert Garcia

Too Cool for School

There's an assignment in the Isaac School District in west Phoenix where sixth graders are given a sheet of paper with a large empty circle on it. Draw in the circle, the teacher says, and turn it into something better.

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.'"

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.

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.

"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.

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."

Interestingly, Maricopa County probation officers note that in the Hispanic school culture, kids who perform well in school are mostly left alone by gangs and bullies.

But for the rest of the students, the ones who need protection, aligning yourself with a gang can be the beginning of a relationship. One that can seem very appealing to a 13-year-old with limited opportunity and a turbulent home life. -- James Hibberd

See previous stories in the Hard Core series here.


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