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FREEDOM IS NEVER RISK-FREE GANGS WLL CONTINUE TO TYRANNIZE IF WE LET THEM.

Byline: Paul Douglas White

LAST week's apparent gang shooting near Taft High School in Woodland Hills, which left three wounded, wasn't a tragedy - it was a miracle. It's miraculous that such attacks haven't been happening on a weekly basis, at countless Los Angeles-area schools, and with much more deadly results.

The growing problem of gang violence in Los Angeles and most major cities is not going to just go away. It's not going to blow over, quiet down or burn itself out.

It's not just kids being kids, but an unprecedented, out-of-control blaze of murder and mayhem, fed by moral cowardice and a dereliction of duty on the part of parents, schools, residents and merchants of infected neighborhoods.

The ultimate problem is that gang members are willing to die for the evil values they believe in, and the good guys who oppose them are not.

At the same time parents, communities and merchants decry gang activity and demand police protection, they obstruct law enforcement through their unwillingness - for fear of reprisals - to identify perpetrators and to press charges.

This isn't just theory; I speak from experience. As a teacher at the West Valley Leadership Academy in Canoga Park, an alternative school site run by Los Angeles County, I've seen firsthand what it will take to win the war on gangs.

The West Valley Leadership Academy caters almost exclusively to repeat juvenile offenders, gang members and abusers of drugs and alcohol. Over a period of six years and at three different school sites, our buildings have a reputation for being spotless and graffiti-free. Gang violence, racial disputes and other crimes are virtually nonexistent.

Our students' behavior is so polite and gentle that, on public outings, we are often mistaken for a pricey private school. Our probation students' reoffending rate is less than one-third the norm.

What did it take to achieve this?

A willingness to do daily battle with gang members and stand up to their threats, intimidation and physical assaults at personal risk. A willingness to stand up to every single hint of lawless behavior with whatever legally available force or action is necessary and required.

Gang members caught defacing property inside or outside of our school are not just suspended or expelled; their parents are forced to pay for the damages. When gangsters not enrolled in our school have tried to enter the campus, they have been arrested on the spot by school officials, the police or both.

On a number of occasions, gang members who have refused to leave our building after being suspended have assaulted school personnel. As the law allows and requires, these students were immediately restrained by school staff until the police came. Then they were arrested, charged and incarcerated.

This kind of proactive behavior is not risk-free. It can result - and has resulted - in injuries and threats to school personnel. But history offers no examples of freedom from tyranny being purchased without a price, and anyone who doesn't believe that gangs are successfully and increasingly tyrannizing Los Angeles is badly mistaken.

After establishing our reputation for not backing down, we have become well known to the gang members in our neighborhoods, known for our commitment to keeping our areas crime-free, and we almost never see them, because they prefer to locate in a neighborhood - like yours, perhaps? - where they can intimidate the local community residents and conduct their criminal activities in peace.

Gang violence is a societal problem, and all parts of our society play a role in tolerating and enabling it.

The parents of gang members are all too often tolerant or intimidated by their children's criminal activity and drug involvement. They provide shelter and food to their young hoodlums and their children's crime partners. They allow their troubled kids to drop out of school, and they lie to the police about their children's gang involvement.

Then, when their little victimizers become victims, they cry to the media and blame it on poor law enforcement.

The voices of community residents and merchants, railing against gang violence at endless public meetings and candlelight vigils, also ring hollow, because they, too, are often afraid to stand up and identify perpetrators, to press charges, to make citizens' arrests. They refuse to stand outside their homes and businesses armed with the most potent weapons in the fight against crime: cell phones and video cameras.

Schools, too, play a significant role in perpetuating this problem.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, like most major school districts, doesn't utilize the strong provisions of the Education Code to arrest and incarcerate gang members. Instead, it prefers the less provocative - and fiscally more attractive - approach of relocating them to ``gangster clubhouses'' (also known as alternative education sites).

There, the criminal gang subculture grows and flourishes. Teachers and administrators, for fear of being assaulted, tend to cower in the corners, enforce no behavioral or dress standards, and let the students run the school.

Our wonderful City of Angels and countless communities just like it across America will never be free from the grip of gang violence until we stop passively waiting for some public official or agency to take a much-needed moral stand. Each one of us must become willing to put up our own spirited resistance against this evil, in whatever form the situation might call for.

``A man who won't die for something is not fit to live,'' Martin Luther King once said. If the community residents in Los Angeles will make a life-or-death commitment to defending their children and communities from the gang scourge, then they will enjoy - because they will have earned - the same sort of peaceful haven that we have at our school and in our neighborhood.

This battle against Los Angeles' gang violence is winnable, as we've proven at our school, but each individual campus and neighborhood has to take a stand. No one can do it for you.

Gang shootings like the one at Taft High School will continue - and worsen - until more of us are willing to make the required radical commitment to stop the violence. Refusal to take such action will guarantee Los Angeles County a future that none of us would want to contemplate.

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) The shooting of three students across the street from Taft High School on Tuesday has been attributed to gang members.

(2 -- color) Taft High students comfort each other after the shootings at a bus stop across the street from the school at Ventura Boulevard and Winnetka Avenue.

Tina Burch/Staff Photographer

(3 -- color) A Taft High School security officer escorts students from the scene of Tuesday's shootings near the school.

Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 14, 2003
Words:1114
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