By Alexa Tondreau
Sitting in his office at Graham Middle School, counselor Marco Garcia displays the gang-related paraphernalia he has confiscated from students just this week.
There's a folded blue bandanna a student wore in his pocket, signifying the Surenos gang, and several drawings another student made on binder paper, depicting gang members, weapons and gang logos.
Garcia has also printed out several pages from a student's Myspace Web page, where the student at the grade 6 to 8 school had posted pictures of himself and his brother wearing red clothing, surrounded by images of the number 14 — an important Norteno marker — and making the hand sign for the Nortenos, the other most prevalent gang in the area.
"The kids are getting involved at a younger age," Garcia said, adding "more and more I'm seeing girls getting into it."
Last year, the Mountain View Whisman school district hired Garcia and childhood friend Arturo Noriega to work as at-risk intervention supervisors at Graham and Crittenden middle schools respectively, where intervening during the formative middle school years seems critical.
"Middle school is crazy," Noriega said. "That's where it all happens and these kids get on that path."
Noriega joined Garcia at Graham last week to speak with the Voice about the presence of gangs at Graham and Crittenden. The two started by clearing up a misconception — that the pre-teen students they deal with are too young to be actual gang members.
"They are more 'wanna-be's,' but those are the kids you watch out for," Garcia said.
"They're going to try to prove themselves somehow," Noriega added.
Initiating violent acts to prove one's reputation is a key for gaining acceptance in gangs like the Nortenos, Surenos and the Brown Prides, they said, and the two have witnessed fights break out on school grounds.
Garcia recalled an incident early in the school year when he came across two girls fighting at the far end of Graham's softball field, surrounded by classmates, where they thought he wouldn't see them.
"I looked back and I saw punches being thrown," he said. After breaking up the fight and questioning the girls, he discovered the fight was rooted in gang rivalry.
"It was a gang thing. It started in the streets over winter break and then made its way to campus," he said.
Garcia and Noriega said that the "at-risk" students who might be headed in the wrong direction come in all shapes and sizes.
"Every child is potentially at risk," Garcia said. "I don't care if they are coming down from the hills or if they live in the ghetto. There are consequences to every decision they make."
But some important indicators do exist, Garcia said, most reliably academic performance. At the beginning of the year, Garcia was handed a list of 60 students who had GPAs below 2.0.
"Most of the time their grades correlate with the behavior. That's a marriage right there," he said.
Beyond reviewing report cards and test scores, Garcia and Noriega look closely at whom the students associate with and how involved they are with school and extracurricular activities. Students who seem to care only about their social standing in their peer group, to the exclusion of interest in sports or grades, are definitely seen as "at-risk," they said.
An important remedial step is to take as much time as they can to talk with students about their lives and in many ways, they said, this is the most fulfilling and challenging aspect of their jobs.
"I'll be kind of like their homeboy," Garcia said. "I tell them 'I am not your principal, teacher or your mom and dad. So you can stop acting like a punk with me and just chill out.'"
Once comfortable, the students often reveal that despite their young age — 11 to 14 years old — they face multiple sources of pressure and stress, including from their family situations, from the culture of the neighborhoods in which they live, and from academic and peer pressures.
"I have students break down in my office every day," Noriega concurred.
The two men often call in parents to provide additional intervention, but parental involvement isn't as easy as one would think, Garcia said.
Students will showcase gang colors and logos on their clothing, backpacks and binders, but parents still won't believe their children are at risk.
"We bring parents in and they are clueless. I get a lot of 'Not my child, I know my kid.' But every child lives a dual childhood, and no one tells their parents everything," Garcia said. "So we have to mentor the students and their parents."
Garcia recently recommended to a student's concerned mother that she "get rid of all his red clothes, his cell phone and computer," he said. Garcia said the Internet has become ample ground for gang rivalries, but also serves as an important tool to discern whether or not students are being drawn towards gangs.
He recalled a meeting last week with the parents of a 12-year-old girl. The parents were worried that her erratic behavior was a sign of drug use and other correlating behavior. Garcia was able to locate her Myspace Web page, where a picture of her boyfriend was prominently displayed.
"He's a well known Sureno," Garcia said. "Her parents were completely shocked. And while she isn't a Sureno herself yet, we knew she was associating with them. And that's where it starts."
Parents need to be wary and watchful, both men agreed.
Garcia and Noriega regularly hang out around students both on campus and off. The two men will walk around neighborhoods like Latham Street and California Avenue, known gang territories, looking for familiar faces to talk to.
The neighborhoods they patrol aren't far from where the two grew up, living just six houses away from each other. Both were students at Graham and agree that at one point they were as susceptible to negative influences as any child they see in their offices.
"We have friends who are dead, and some are in prison," Noriega said.
He said he began to feel the pull toward gangs and criminal activity shortly after middle school, when his family moved to the Stockton area and he felt like an outsider. He said the experience helps him to relate to students who desperately want to fit in.
He attributes his "amazing parents" and his interest in sports with keeping him in line.
For Garcia, despite a difficult childhood, the gangs in his neighborhood were always unattractive, he said.
"My perspective of a gang was that to be in one you had to be a follower," he said. "And I always just wanted to do my own thing."
Though they will continue as counselors next year, their positions in the district are temporary, and this gives them cause for concern.
"I think we've helped to put a cap on things, and it's more mellow at the schools this year. But the downfall is the district won't think they need us. This position should always be here, and it doesn't nearly sum up what needs to happen," Garcia said.
This story contains 1282 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.