By Olga Khazan
Senior Editor, Neon Tommy
During a mid-morning break between classes at Crenshaw High School, a senior named Patricia was showing Sybel Stanley pictures of a prom dress on her phone. Earlier in the week, another girl at the school had told her friends that the dress in question, clearly a store-bought number, had been special-made for her by a designer. Patricia was speaking in the outraged tone of a sassy high schooler-cum-prosecutor, and Stanley, whether in earnest or in a convincing show of support, was shocked as well.
"Well, would you look at that," Stanley said. Sybel Stanley is a parent-resource coordinator at Crenshaw, which essentially means she makes sure students are doing well enough at home to do well enough at school. Her round frame barely breaks 5 feet, and she has a gap-toothed grin that she's quick to flash anyone who needs it.
"She's gonna show up at the prom, and someone else is gonna have her same dress on!" Patricia said. Patricia's bobbed black hair is straightened and pulled back in a pink headband that matches her shirt. Everything about her appearance is carefully coordinated, from her purse to her phone cover.
"I mean, it's a dress. Why would you lie about that?" she concluded emphatically. After all, nothing is sacred in high school if not prom.
"Well, you know how tight money is for everyone these days," Stanley said.
Suddenly Patricia remembered something on a more serious note.
"Oh Granny, you don't even know," Patricia said. "My momma broke down this morning."
Patricia, like many of her Crenshaw peers, was accepted to college. But her mom, like many Crenshaw moms, was having trouble paying her initial deposit. That morning Patricia was faced with the reality of the financial pressures when she saw her mother crying.
"What about step-dad?" Stanley asked. Patricia raised her eyebrows and gave Stanley a look.
"Well... I guess we already talked about that," Stanley said.
Stanley put her hands on her knees. "Well, what can we do?" she asked.
Patricia looked down at the floor. (Her name, and those of the students identified by first name only, has been changed because of the sensitive issues they raise).
"You know we love you, we're going to take care of you," Stanley said, wrapping Patricia in a warm hug.
"Oh Granny, don't say that," Patricia said, her eyes welling up with tears.
Despite Patricia's protests, Stanley was finally able to convince the girl to take a $200 check for her mother to hold her over until the next paycheck came through.
"Don't worry, Granny's got some gold she can sell!" Stanley said. Patricia grabbed her things and walked off to class.
The lit-up marquee in front of Crenshaw High says, "Make each and every day a great day, an educational day and a fun day. The choice is yours." The exterior is faded beige brick, and at the entrance there's a padlocked blue gate that casts a webbed shadow on anyone who stands inside it after noon. It looks nothing like the typical "urban school" from inspirational school movies, save perhaps for the chain-link fence around the perimeter and the police officers who stand guard each day when school lets out.
Walking around Crenshaw at lunchtime, it seems no different from any other place where lots of teenagers congregate - boys raucously shout and run when they're not supposed to, girls crack jokes and gossip with each other, couples hold hands in the pale yellow hallways.
Crenshaw is a neighborhood with its fair share of battle scars, and Crenshaw High, like any other high school, has had its ups and downs.
The school lost accreditation in 2005, and, though it was promptly restored, the school still has some of the lowest API scores and graduation rates in L.A. Unified.
Some have blamed curriculum cutbacks, unwieldy class sizes and the rapid turnover of administrators. Socioeconomics play a hand, as does the low level of parental involvement. Less evident, but almost more significant, is the high percentage of students with learning disabilities, which have been left to Crenshaw's care as higher-achieving students have fled to charter and private schools.
But there's a reason the rest of the students - even the healthy, the mentally astute, the mostly food-secure and decently provided-for ones - are so often unable to meet the demands of standardized tests and required credits.
"The majority are here just trying to get an education," Stanley said. "But they walk through three or four different gang territories to get here. And when they get here, they're already tired, because momma's on crack, daddy's not in the picture, or if he is, he and momma have been fighting all night."
Stanley, like the other Crenshaw staff mentioned in this story, isn't part of the Urban League or Neighborhoods@Work program. But in a trying environment like Crenshaw, she and her colleagues are more than just teachers and administrators - they're lifelines.
Crenshaw students may be lagging academically, but the real problem is that the school's four psychological counselors struggle to cope with the vast numbers of students who have seen more than 16-year-old eyes ever should.
Every once in a while, Stanley said she finds out a student has been sleeping on Crenshaw's stoop, waking just before the janitors arrive. Shirley Warner, the cafeteria manager, once found a boy waiting eagerly for breakfast at 6 a.m. on a Monday. He hadn't had anything to eat since lunch at school the previous Friday. From then on, Warner has stuffed his backpack with food every Friday to make sure he never goes a day without eating.
A life-skills teacher, Steven Johnson, once gave seven of his classes a health questionnaire that asked if the students had ever witnessed a major traumatic event. Eighty percent answered yes.
"You see, the majority of our kids," Stanley said, "are suffering from post-traumatic stress."
A few minutes into lunchtime on April 15, an announcement came over the P.A. system: "All students report back to your classrooms. Lunch is now over."
Outside there was mass chaos, with students sprinting across the quad and staff members looking at each other, alarmed and confused. Inside, Stanley and other teachers stood in the hallways, screaming at students to get back into the classrooms.
A handful of students ran into Stanley's room. Along the hallway, doors slammed shut. Everybody in stays in, everybody out stays out.
The students scattered about the room, yelling over each other and gesticulating wildly.
"He pulled out the gun right next to my head!" one boy said.
Stanley ordered them to calm down and talk in turn.
Through panicked chatter, one storyline emerged. At lunch a fight had broken out between a group of black boys and a group of Latinos. One of the Latino boys pulled out a gun, the students said, and one of the black boys, Justin (not his real name), punched him in the face.
"And then everybody started rumblin'," another said. School administrators called the lockdown when a group of students told campus security that they saw a gun.
"A gun?!" Stanley asked. "What gun?"
"Yes, a gun, a burner," Jenny (not her real name) said. "With bullets in it. He cocked it back!"
Stanley asked the students to describe the boy with the gun, and they began calling out various descriptors - the Mexican one, the short one, the baseball cap, the L.A. sweatshirt.
"They all wear L.A. sweatshirts!" someone yelled.
At that moment, Justin burst into the room like a storm, stomping past the others as they tried to grab him and make him sit down.
"I'm straight, I'm straight!" he yelled. "Y'all don't grab me." Justin paced around the room, shaking with rage. His hand was swollen, but even so he punched the cinderblock wall again for good measure.
"I'm going to jail tomorrow, I don't care!" he said. He reached for the door, but Stanley blocked him.
"You're not going out there!" she yelled.
"His ass is real soft, I bet you," Jenny said. "Cause he's got a hard-ass head."
"You're not going to jail, Justin," Stanley said. Justin relented and slid into the bathroom to run cold water over his red wrist.
The rest of the students plotted their escape. A few called their parents to ask if they could take them home right away, and a few said they were skipping school the next day entirely.
"I'm comin' in sweat pants and tennis shoes tomorrow," another girl said. "In case a sister's gotta take off running."
A few minutes into the cacaphony, the students noticed me and asked who I was. I said I was observing, and I asked if the lockdown was normal. They emphasized that it was not. Any time they cursed, they followed it with "excuse my French," as though their profanity would be the thing that would ruffle my feathers that day.
There was a knock at the door. When Stanley opened it, two LAPD officers said they wanted to question the students about what they saw. Justin sat behind a curtain separating Stanley's office from a kitchenette, trying to type out text messages with his good hand. The students looked back at him after the police left.
"Well we can't lie to the police, so what are we going to do?" Patricia asked.
The room fell into a tense silence as each one weighed the choice between protecting their friend and telling the truth.
"All you have to do," Stanley said, "is tell them what you saw."
Contrary to what its pop-culture image might suggest, there aren't that many actual gangsters at Crenshaw. Stanley ballparks the number of hardcore gang members at 5 to 8 percent. The rest of them are flashy-dressed boys who prowl the school's periphery, muttering their allegiance to the '60s - slang for Crips - and throwing gang signs.
"Wannabes," Stanley calls them.
And when the gangs do fight, it's usually among each other - black gangs on black gangs, Latino on Latino. It's hardly ever interracial, and hardly ever with guns.
Still, Stanley said said, when gang tensions flare, it's a good thing Crenshaw's staff is street smart. One of the Crenshaw aides is even a former gang member herself, Stanley said, who was initiated into the '30s but switched to the '60s when neighborhood lines shifted. Giving birth to a son when she was a teenager inspired her to turn her life around.
"She fought her way out," Stanley said. "She said, 'Hey, I have to show my kids something different than my parents showed me."
In the aftermath of the lockdown, the aide was digging through flower beds and trash barrels looking for the gun.
"She has been such a help to Crenshaw because she knows what's happening with the gangs," Stanley said. "She gets in here, she diffuses it, she squashes so many things."
The lockdown lasted for over two hours. It was lifted for half an hour before administrators called a second, shorter lockdown.
By the end of the day, campus security had still not found the gun or the boy who had it. In an interview 10 days later, Los Angeles school police said it was a false alarm - a case of mass hysteria with no gun to show for it. The same day, Crenshaw dean Bill Vanderberg said it had been found, but that it was a BB gun.
Stanley said that it should have taken 30 minutes to find the offending boy by reviewing footage from the school's security cameras.
The only problem is that the security cameras at Crenshaw don't actually work.
"And the kids know it," Stanley said.
The Urban League's Neighborhoods@Work has been working to boost the safety and academic standards at Crenshaw through a partnership with the school and local law enforcement. [link to overview] So far they've hired the Nation of Islam and extra security officers to patrol the area, and many students said they feel safer getting to and from school. Or at least they don't get mugged as often.
"If you go to a school where you feel safe and protected, you have a distinct advantage," said Urban League CEO Blair Taylor in an interview. "I work at the Los Angeles Urban League every day, but if someone sticks a knife or gun in my face, I'll take a week off work."
Four days after it happened, Taylor said he hadn't heard about the lockdown. He said he did know about the broken security cameras and that the issue has been brought up in meetings the Urban League has had with its Crenshaw partners.
"The security camera issue has come up to the [Greater Crenshaw Educational Partnership] board," he said. "That's something we've been budgeted for, and those cameras will be corrected imminently."
The cameras seem to be another casualty of L.A. Unified's $700 million budget gap and the slow-moving gears of bureaucracy. Even minor structural improvements at Crenshaw seem to take ages to fix. The school's fire alarms haven't worked for months. They go off at random times regardless of whether there's an actual fire, to the point that students and staff barely bat an eye at its shrill shrieking and flashing lights.
Some students stayed at home the day after the lockdown, worried about a better-executed assault or an attempt at retaliation. But for most, the lockdown was a freak event - an aberration among countless normal Crenshaw school days that pass without incident.
Hundreds of the students at Crenshaw live with loving families in the neighborhood's quaint pastel houses, their well-manicured lawns shadowed by towering palm trees. They lead normal, stable teenage lives.
But for hundreds more, instability is a daily reality, whether because of financial pressures like Patricia's, turbulent home lives or their neighborhood's violent crime.
"Many of these kids are open scabs," Steve Johnson, the life-skills teacher, said. "They don't fear death; they see it every day."
Stanley told me the story of a girl named Trisha (not her real name), a 14-year-old who tried to break free of a crack-addicted mother by making it on her own.
"She scared the bejeebus out of me," Stanley said. "She said, 'I will put a gun to a nigger's head and rob him. She wasn't joking, and she wasn't psychotic.'"
Occasionally, the girl turned to casual prostitution in order to make rent.
"She was going to another guy's house to give him head to have a place to spend the night," Stanley said. "The guy who was taking her to this location figured he could get some, too."
But that's not what he and Trisha had agreed to, and she wasn't going to give herself up that easily. So, Stanley said, she jumped from the speeding car and onto the pavement of the Santa Monica freeway going 70 miles an hour.
She came back to school a few days later with broken teeth and gouges on her cheek and forehead.
Johnson said Trisha is far from the only student who's struggling to help their family make ends meet.
"I just got through talking to a girl - she's not going to class, but she's not a bad kid," he said. "She said, 'I'm sorry Mr. Johnson, but I can't. My mom doesn't work, and dad hasn't had a job for two years. I go out and try to make money.' We're scared to ask the question of how."
These obstacles do more than stress students emotionally. They cloud their brains, rendering them about as functional and ready to learn as a shell-shocked soldier.
"Some kids are really lost," said a senior named Raheem Giddens. "Some kids really think that there is really nothing beyond this place. They already know the streets, and they think what they're teaching them here doesn't apply to the streets."
The "trauma" in post-traumatic stress disorder typically refers to images of war zone carnage that continue to plague a war veteran's psyche after their return home. Some people with the disorder have anxiety attacks or wake up screaming from nightmares. They detach emotionally from their loved ones, or they remain hyper-vigilant, always on the lookout for perceived threats and enemies.
But in the past two decades, psychologists have found that children growing up in turbulent environments are often afflicted with the same symptoms. The syndrome can cause students to, among other things, lose interest in schoolwork, have difficulty concentrating and lash out aggressively at authority figures. What's more, the National Survey of Adolescents found that African-American teens and those living in urban settings had especially high rates of PTSD.
"With PTSD, you develop this protective mechanism to become numb and not having any feelings about anything," said Dr. Liza Suarez, co-director of the Urban Youth Trauma Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "They learn the world is dangerous, and I need to survive, and I need to take care of myself, that's it."
In moments of stress, the body's fight or flight response gives us momentary superhuman powers. We run faster and act quicker, but when the feeling subsides, we go back to our mild-mannered selves.
For many students at Crenshaw and other inner-city schools, the fight-or-flight instinct never goes away.
"These kids with PTSD are constantly experiencing this physiological arousal," Suarez said. "A teacher with a stern look might remind them of neglect or abuse in their community, and they might become physiologically agitated."
Suarez spent the early part of the decade training at UCLA and working as a school psychologist in various neighborhoods in South L.A., including Crenshaw.
"There were a lot of kids in distress in South L.A.," Suarez said. "Many were impacted by the pressures to become gang-affiliated, and there were other types of pressures that were not gang-related, but were distressing to kids."
This distress includes the rise in foster or kinship parenting, which is itself connected to the uptick in drug use, incarceration and economic instability in the region throughout the '80s and '90s. Estimates vary widely, but Vanderberg estimates that at least a third of Crenshaw kids are in foster homes or live with relatives.
"Before I got here, I didn't know that there was so many foster kids," said Crenshaw junior Ahjaleah Price, a star student who said she's proud of her school despite its problems. "Our girls especially are kind of damaged inside from the way they're living. They try to fake like they have things they really can't afford."
Foster care can perpetuate the cycle of instability because most kids bounce from home to home rather than staying with one family.
"I saw kids who had 13 placements by the time they were eight years old," Suarez said. "It can make a child feel like nobody cares for them, nobody's there for them, and why bother getting attached to someone if they won't be around?"
Stress can also change the way people respond to confrontation. It induces the secretion of cortisol, a hormone that helps the body cope with danger. But when cortisol floods the body for long periods of time, it can also eat away at our ability to make cool-headed decisions. As a result, students like Justin think with their gut.
"The pathway to respond rationally to things is shot for those who have been traumatized," Suarez said. "So you're more likely to respond based on emotion and you're likelier to engage in riskier activity."
It gets to the heart of what Johnson fears may happen if there's not a major intervention to help inner-city high schoolers cope with the pressures of their daily lives. With barely half the students at Crenshaw graduating, "You're going to end up with a city full of unemployable people," he said.
Raheem Giddens' friends call him "Radio," after the boombox-blaring character by the same name in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." But he doesn't want you to get the wrong idea - he's not some street punk.
"I don't want people to think, 'Oh, he goes to Crenshaw, so he's a gang banger or a fail student," he said. "That's not me."
The nickname fits him because he is, as he puts it, "musically inclined": he D.J.'s for fun, composes music and sings in the hallways of Crenshaw. He sounds like a public relations executive when he talks, and he wears a sweatshirt emblazoned with the letters of the college he'll be attending in the fall: USC. He's majoring in business.
Giddens acknowledges that the actions of the "bad students" at Crenshaw can sometimes speak louder than those of the good ones. But, he said, not all teens who start out troubled end up that way.
"The people who are doing bad have always been told that they're going to be doing bad, so they give in to the self-fulfilling prophecy," he said. "Good students have been told the same thing, but they're the ones who defeat the stereotype."
It doesn't take long to stumble across countless examples of Crenshaw students doing just that.
Ahjaleah Price's boyfriend is a senior named Richard Allen. He's an athlete who drifted from the home of his biological parents to a foster home to living with his grandmother, who was herself busy with seven other kids. He did well in school, and even better when he met Price, who told him, "If you wanna get accepted to good schools, if you wanna have choices, you gotta do more than a 2.5 GPA."
Now he's a 3.2, and among the colleges he's choosing from are names like Northwestern.
Price hasn't done too badly for herself, either. She's part of a student leadership group that liaises between school administrators and students, and she helps the Urban League promote its health programs [link to my other story] on Crenshaw's campus.
On Christmas and Thanksgiving, Crenshaw sends food baskets to the homes of students whose families are in a tight financial spot. Price helps load an 18-wheeler truck with canned food "and like, a million turkeys. I've never seen so many turkeys."
Price loves her school. She says it's given her a good education, lots of friends and a chance to meet people from Belize, Jamaica, the Philippines and elsewhere. The problems Crenshaw has aren't Crenshaw's, she said. They're everywhere.
"Everywhere you go in South L.A., there's gonna be problems with the color you are or the color you're wearing," she said. "Sure, we have bad kids, but you don't have to hang out with the bad kids."
Stanley told me another story about a former Crenshaw student, Aisha (not her real name). Aisha lived with an aunt because she had an ailing mother, and she was in a wheelchair because she had spina bifida.
She also had "the biggest Kool-Aid smile you ever wanna see," Stanley said.
One day, Aisha's sister walked in on the aunt hitting Aisha, and she called the police. The aunt threw them out, leaving the girls with nowhere to go. Stanley called around to her other extended family members, and she found a new place for Aisha to stay in another school district. Now she's graduating with a high GPA and headed to college.
The flip side of post-traumatic stress disorder is a lesser-known phenomenon called post-traumatic growth, where a person finds meaning and purpose in a traumatic event and uses it to strengthen themselves. According to a 2006 study by researchers at the Yale School of Public Health, some urban young women who had experienced the death of a loved one, a physical threat or even an unplanned pregnancy experienced a new "appreciation for life" afterward. And the likelier they were to do so, the less likely they were to feel emotionally distressed in years to come.
Suarez also mentioned examples of World War II concentration camp prisoners who were more likely to survive if they kept hope alive in their darkest hours.
"A lot of people develop a mission to help other other people or prevent same thing from happening to others," Suarez said. "They do what they can do to survive."
Even though she calls Stanley "Granny," Patricia is not Stanley's granddaughter. "Granny" is a nickname coined by Stanley's "crew" - a group of roughly a dozen students she mentored through a rough time after a friend of theirs was hit by a car earlier in the year.
A personal tragedy showed Stanley the importance of counseling in times of grief. Years ago, her 31-year-old son was murdered in a robbery.
"I don't think I've ever been in a place that dark before," she said. At first, Stanley turned to shopping for comfort, racking up thousands of dollars on credit cards before she realized she needed to see a grief counselor.
You can't fill that void," she said. "You have to deal with it."
To pay it forward, Stanley has shepherded countless students through hard times. She's bought prom dresses for girls who couldn't afford them and arranged prom dates between two shy students in wheelchairs. She's repeatedly coaxed distant relatives and family friends of Crenshaw kids to take students in if their living situations become unliveable.
"We do what we can for them," Stanley said.
Not including the academic counselors, Crenshaw has psychological counselors who work with students on personal problems, but the teachers interviewed said that's still not enough.
"There are kids who are out there who still haven't gotten any attention," said longtime Crenshaw instructor James Derrick, "and many of them who need it."
In his 45 years at Crenshaw, Derrick has adopted two of the school's students when their home lives fell to pieces. Derrick said pairing up Crenshaw students with specific teachers or mentors might help to keep them on track, even when life derails.
Or as Giddens suggested, "We really have to get inside their minds and tell them that the way they're thinking is not the way to success."
As part of the Neighborhoods@Work program, the Urban League and Crenshaw's probation staff selected students who were at risk for criminal offenses and brought in social workers to hold weekly therapy sessions with the students and their families for a few months at a time.
"The objective of treatment is geared to changing a minor's delinquent behaviors and empowering the family to utilize the resources in their environment to assist with increasing protective factors and decreasing risk factors," Taylor said in an e-mail message.
But even students who aren't at risk for delinquency could benefit from adult guidance. Suarez and her colleagues found that connection to positive role models strengthens the likelihood that a child will flourish in distressing times. By the time students reach high school, however, it may be too late to change course.
"The foundation of a child is at home," Price said. "I beg the community to teach their kids some morals and values and things to live up to. Once they come to high school, everyone thinks they're grown."
Once a year, the community members around Crenshaw gather at the school, circle the football field, hold hands and pray for the school's continued survival.
Stanley said that the school's new leadership under principal Carrie Allen has shown a promising start in tackling the school's deep-rooted problems. Parents are more involved, students seem more determined and graduation rates are slowly but surely rising. The school's proficiency rates are still nothing to brag about, but at least it has one this year.
To Price, Giddens, Stanley and everyone else working to make Crenshaw a better place to go to school, events like the lockdown are an exasperating distraction from the task at hand: living up to words on the school's marquee.
"There will be nobody falling through the cracks. There will be no homeless child, no hungry child," Stanley said. "We've never been so gung-ho about it."
Then she paused.
"We have to be, because we're losing these young people."