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From Juvenile Hall To The Classroom


A recent report finds nearly half of teenage boys arrested in San Diego County are gang members. When they return home from juvenile hall, they are faced with living a normal lifestyle, which includes going back to school.

— Probation officers wearing black jackets and pants roam the halls of the Youth Day Central Center in Southeast San Diego.

This center is like a transitional high school for kids who have just been released from juvenile hall. About 20 boys sit inside one of the classrooms with their textbooks in hand.

Probation officers say roughly 90 percent of the students here are gang members.

Students cannot wear blue, red or green because those are gang colors. They are also routinely tested for drugs and searched daily for weapons.

The teenagers spend two to three months here as part of their probation before they get moved to a traditional school.

Most have not stepped foot in a classroom since they were 13 years old.

“I was doing good up until I hit middle school, that’s when most kids end up experimenting with things,” said Robert, a 16-year-old gang member who did not want to give his last name for fear of retaliation.

Robert started doing drugs when he was in seventh grade. That’s about the same time his girlfriend got pregnant.

“I just didn’t go to school for months and months. I ended up in my neighborhood with the older crowd because (older gang members) didn’t go to school. I just got deeper and deeper into things.”

Robert has been locked up for numerous assaults, including a stabbing, shooting and fist fights.

He said in the gang world, you earn respect from your elders through physical violence – not by going to school.

“They would tell me, ‘Don't go to school. Your life is all about the gang now,’” Robert said.

A recent report seems to back that up. The San Diego Association of Governments surveyed young people arrested in 2009. Almost all said they were more likely to commit a crime after joining a gang.

About one-third said they wanted to get out of the gang, but many felt they could not because of retaliation.

Andrew Bye is one of two teachers at the Youth Day Center Central. He said for gang kids, getting locked up is a rite of passage.

“In our society, a rite of passage might be a high school graduation. In fact, a high school graduate is seen as a man. When that option no longer is as viable … that doesn't mean (young people) will stop finding ways to become a man. It’s actually the opposite. (Young people) will look for other ways to find that acceptance, and gangs are ready to give them that acceptance.”

Bye said his biggest challenge is convincing these kids that education can help them redefine themselves. He said many students only see themselves as gang members.

Bye said more than 100 of his students have died as a result of gang violence.

He said his ability to read warning signs can be a matter of life or death – whether it is tagging on classroom walls or verbal attacks.

“It can be very subtle,” Bye explained, “but that very low profile altercation in a classroom could escalate to something very serious involving numerous people, very quickly.”

Bye said that's why he creates a seating chart based on which gangs his students claim. He keeps enemies and friends separate.

He also does not praise some students during class for doing well in school because that can be considered a sign of weakness among gangs.

Robert said he often has to hide the fact he’s going to school from his fellow gang members.

“I look forward to coming here, but sometimes I don’t because I’ve been jumped at least eight times just for being (at school). It is pretty hard. Everyday is different.”

Even so, Robert and other students here say they are determined to distance themselves from the gang lifestyle and get back into a regular school.

But they do face an uphill battle.

Nearly 15,000 students cycle through San Diego County’s juvenile court schools in a year. County education officials say that’s because a large majority find themselves back behind bars.


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