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Schools, Police, and the Criminalization of Latino Youth
By Victor M. Rios
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
The Probation School
Punta Vista School opened its doors in the early 1990s in Riverland, California, as an alternative institution for educating students who were failing school or in trouble with the law. Juveniles on probation and students expelled from local high schools — usually for gang-related truancy, defiance, fights, and drug use — were mandated to attend Punta Vista School. Its mission was to educate those youths released from incarceration or those truants who had missed too many days at the conventional school to be allowed to return.
Jorge and Mark were two of the first youths I met at Punta Vista. Over time, I shadowed and interviewed them to learn about the institutional forces that converged to impact them. Punta Vista School and the surrounding streets of South Riverland formed the main nexus where youths like Jorge and Mark interacted with authority figures. Eventually, I hung out on the streets of the south side and in other relevant places — the conventional high school, the community center, and the courtroom — to follow up with Jorge, Mark, and other gang-associated youths.
For two months, I observed classes at Punta Vista before I approached Mark and Jorge, gang-associated youths who had reported being previously arrested and listed in law enforcement's gang database. They were also described by school officials as gang members. Over the years, the boys shifted between labeling themselves as gang members or alleged gang members, depending on their attitudes and circumstances. The boys agreed to allow me to interview and observe them. In addition, Jorge and Mark connected me with other gang-associated young men in the neighborhood. With this snowball method, I gained access to members of a male street gang that law enforcement had linked with the Mexican Mafia, a notorious prison gang that was otherwise suspicious of outsiders.
Despite these introductions and connections, gaining the trust of some of these young men was not easy. In fact, some stated that they did not trust me even after four years in the field. Their main concern was that one day I would turn data I collected over to law enforcement. Therefore, for the youths' safety and my own protection, over time I acquired a certificate of confidentiality from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which allows the researcher to refuse to disclose identifiable research information in response to legal demands. Part of the certificate mandates that "persons so authorized to protect the privacy of such individuals may not be compelled in any Federal, State, or local civil, criminal, administrative, legislative, or other proceedings to identify such individuals." Eventually, some of the boys trusted me enough to allow me to shadow them at the park, the street, the community center, their schools, and at Golden State Liquors store.
When I first met Jorge, a short, scrawny fifteen-year-old Latino, he had a shaved head and preferred to dress in extra-baggy polyester work pants or shorts — Dickies or Ben Davis — and extra-large white T-shirts or blue-checkered dress shirts. He was in fourth grade when he and his older brother arrived undocumented to the United States from Mexico, and he still spoke with a heavy accent, struggling to find words in English as quickly as he wanted to say them. He often switched back and forth between English and Spanish: "Ay ese cabron is talking shit about me; si no se calla le voy a dar en la madre" [Ay, that asshole is talking shit about me; if he doesn't shut up I am going to kick his ass]. Jorge's response to his environment and the stress inflicted on him was to make jokes and witty comments. From his seat at the front of the class, he cracked jokes, chatted with classmates, blurted out random noises, and constantly frustrated the teacher with back talk.
Mark was a Californio (Mexican and indigenous origin) whose family roots could be traced back to California native peoples and the Spanish who arrived in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, before the United States seized California from Mexico. Mark was proud of his family's heritage ("My great grandma was Chumash [Native American], and all my family has been here way before the gueros [white people] came"), but he also used his deep roots with the land as a point of resistance to the Anglo culture's dominance, disrespect for indigenous and other cultures, and expectations of assimilation and submission to a given role in society. Mark's experience illustrates Riverland's deeply problematic racialized culture in which Latinos are portrayed, described, and visible as either members of a servant class or a criminal class (see chapter 3). The servant class typically includes adult immigrants who work in the tourist and restaurant industries, while the criminal class comprises younger individuals, often second generation and beyond, who are constantly stopped and frisked by police in public and appear almost nightly on the evening news as criminal suspects or perpetrators. Mark, like many of the boys in this study, troubled with the community's treatment of his people, wanted to do something about the problem, but did not know how.
With his hair buzz-cut so short that his pale scalp was visible, Mark sat quietly at the back of the classroom, consistently appearing disgruntled. The administration and faculty had a list of character types, folk categories, used to label students for the sake of everyone's safety and to maintain order: the addict, the emotionally disturbed, the promiscuous chola (gangster girl), the angry cholo, the wannabe (aspiring gangster), and the class clown. The principal selected "the angry type" to describe Mark. He did appear to internalize his frustrations, and eventually he would reach a breaking point and lash out. One day, for example, Mark overheard a male classmate tell a female student, "I think you like Mark; I think you want him to ask you out?"
Mark's light complexion turned slightly red as he clinched his fists together and his face and the back of his head convulsed in anger. He stood up from his desk to confront the other boy: "What you say about me? Don't be putting my name in your stupid fucking words. ... I'm gonna kick your ass after school!"
The classroom security guard, a typical fixture in a school for students considered at risk, swiftly grabbed Mark by the shoulder and marched him outside. Mark did not return for the remainder of class. Later, I noticed him sitting in the principal's office. "We have to give him lots of time to cool down," the security guard said.
Being removed from class was hardly new to Mark, whose disruptive behavior invited institutional reprimand from an early age. White boys displaying similar behavior in an affluent suburban school might be labeled ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder), but, for Mark, the ritual was to be singled out and positioned as "gang" member. Mark told me,
Since like third grade I would like disrupt the class, according to them [teachers], I would always be disruptive. They would wait for me to say one little thing just to get me out of class ... they wouldn't give me a chance ... like then in high school my fuckin' English teacher, that fool, used to have my referrals already written for me — a big stack — he would wait just for me to say something and he'll be like all right go outside walk to the office ... and I knew because they would always say the same, like no matter what I did, it would say "disruptive in class."
According to Mark, his disruptiveness led him to become labeled a gang member:
I know like they don't want you there [at school], like gangsters like people that they think you know are gangsters. These motherfuckers, they're not doing, they're not gonna do any good to our school. Fuck that. Kick 'em out, you know try to find reasons to get 'em out. Like, oh yeah, this fool got suspended like three times, he's a gang member ... that's what happened with me. Just for getting in trouble in class, they were scared and labeled me a fuckin' gangster and kicked me out.
During my observations, I found Mark had a tendency to respond to conflict through facial expressions and language that staff considered angry and threatening to others. Many times, I witnessed Mark become uncontrollably upset over an apparently trivial issue. On one occasion, in front of the Golden State Liquors store, the preferred hangout spot for the south side boys, Mark loaned his brother, Justin, a pair of Locs sunglasses. Advertised as "the most popular hardcore shades in the world" and worn by famous rap artists like Ice Cube and the late Eazy-E, Locs sold for under twenty dollars and were coveted among the neighborhood boys.
(Justin, also one of the South Riverland gang-associated boys had been arrested for running away from a police officer who caught him breaking the 10 p.m. city curfew. The curfew bans youths under sixteen from being out without an adult chaperone at night, and violators are ticketed and ordered to appear in court to face financial penalties and possible probation. Justin attempted to flee before the ticket and the fine; instead, he was arrested and charged with violating the terms of his probation.)
That day in front of the liquor store, Justin accidently chipped Mark's Locs, which infuriated and enraged his brother. Mark started pacing and cursing, and then kicked the liquor store wall. Standing about three feet away from me, he slammed the sunglasses on the ground with all his might, shattering them into hundreds of tiny fragments. The loud noise followed by plastic shrapnel bouncing off my arms sent chills running through my body. The other boys looked shocked, and Mark walked away as if trying to stop himself from physically attacking his brother.
On the streets, such aggressive displays were prominent and threats or violent acts could unfold at any given moment. However, the Punta Vista School's authoritarian control kept such aggression to a minimum during the day and on site, saved for a later time and a different space. The school's primary role seemed to be to contain violent behavior in order to maintain a reputation of control. But what happened outside of school was out of its purview.
Despite his principal's description and my own initial observation of an ill-tempered Mark, he was more complicated than the "angry type" label suggested. I could have settled for studying Mark's dominant "angry" persona. Over the years, he demonstrated many episodes of rage and anger. However, I also realized that Mark had other ways of being, other identities, that the school had not recognized but that over time and across space, I could uncover.
Observing young people across settings and for long periods of time allows us to uncover their multiple dimensions. It is our obligation as researchers to complicate our descriptions of these individuals so that our writing portrays a more true-to-life version of the individuals we encounter in the field. A more reflexive approach that understands research participants as heterogeneous in their worldviews and behaviors allows us to grant individuals the human dignity they deserve and to approach a more nuanced understanding of the social facts we examine.
Mark could have been understood in this project as simply an angry type, taking his frustration out on his peers and the system. However, Mark also portrayed other dominant characteristics that require further examination. For example, a few hours after the sunglasses incident, I observed Mark in front of his friend Michael's apartment talking to Michael's mother. He noticed that the front of her apartment smelled of urine and was filled with cigarette butts and trash. He said, "'Spensa señora [excuse me, ma'am], I can clean some of this stuff if you want. All I need is a bucket of water and a broom and a trash bag." Mark's relationship with this adult — an authority figure he respected and listened to — seemed to position him as a helper. In this different social context, Mark presented himself as kind and empathetic.
Among many youths in this study, I found a similar ability to switch personae and corresponding mannerisms from one social context to another. Labeled one way by authorities in a certain context, these same youths could present themselves as quite the opposite elsewhere. Some authority figures and some spatial and social contexts seemed to bring out the best in young people while others brought out the worst, and, more than distinct personalities, these interactional and spatial contexts mattered.
The Controlled Environment of Punta Vista
The interactional and spatial context of Punta Vista seemed to bring out the worst dimension in students. The school resembled an industrial building, about three thousand square feet and freshly painted institutional gray. The main door, painted green, seemed better suited to a residential house, hardly like a gateway through which dozens of high school students would walk each day. Three insignificant windows facing west brought minimal natural light into the school. Plumbing pipes, electrical wires, and utility meters covered about a fourth of the front facade. The parking lot had room for three cars, and a metal, barbed-wire fence, about eight-feet tall, divided the school from the adjacent sidewalk. A minuscule sign, two-inches wide by five-inches long, read "Punta Vista School." Local residents appeared clueless about this unattractive, seemingly vacant building.
Aside from the building's dreary appearance, the school site had been mired in controversy when toxic chemicals had seeped from abandoned, dilapidated underground oil and toxic waste storage tanks left behind from a diesel truck repair shop that once had been located on the adjacent property. In addition, the Department of Toxic Substances Control detected tetrachloroethene in the school, a chemical known to pose health risks for humans. During my observations, the county conducted an environmental study that determined that the tetrachloroethene present in the school was not strong enough to harm students, but could potentially pose a risk to teachers who had worked there for an extensive period of time.
On my visit to Punta Vista School, I found the front door locked. I pushed a small black doorbell, and I was buzzed in a few seconds later. Cameras in the front lobby recorded my entry. The tall, husky, shaven-headed white security guard subtly lifted his head and wrinkled his face, as if to say, "What's up?" I returned his speechless gesture with a minimal response; tilting my head slightly to the side and lifting my chin, I said, "How's it going?"
As I arrived at the front office, the receptionist, a short, stocky middle-aged Latina with curly hair, was on the phone. She paused her conversation to ask, "How can I help you?" I explained I was there to see the principal, Ms. Mason, with whom I arranged my visit and classroom observations a few weeks prior. Ms. Mason was a thin, dark-complexioned, middle-aged Latina who appeared to care for the students, but also demonstrated a "no nonsense" approach to dealing with discipline. During our first interaction in her office, she revealed, "Security. It's my favorite sport." Over time, I realized that her leadership approach was more concerned with preventing violence and crime at the school than educating students. The school structure and culture reflected this approach.
As I waited to see Ms. Mason, I observed the student check-in process. At the beginning of each school day, students lined up and presented all of their personal belongings to the front office staff: wallets, loose cash and change, cell phones, even their school supplies. Removing their shoes to ensure no weapons were hidden inside, the students were inspected with a handheld metal detector. The receptionist provided them a reference number — 14, 15, 16, and so on — which they used after school to retrieve their belongings. Mark described his experience with the check-in process:
This school's more controlled, we have no freedom. ... It's like you come in and you checking in to prison but the teachers can't really control us. They just tell us what not to do. ... They're so mad that they can't tell us what to do that they all they can do is tell us what not to do.
If a male student wore an extra-baggy shirt or a T-shirt with images considered inappropriate, security guards would give him a plain, bright-orange shirt to wear instead. One out of every five students ended up in this situation. I later learned that this bright-orange shirt also was used to punish students who defied school personnel, even if they were dressed appropriately. Clothing had become a contested symbol that authority figures used to control students' behavior and that students used to challenge the authoritarian order.
Excerpted from Human Targets by Victor M. Rios. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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