West Side High School, Newark 2006: I was vice-principal in charge of scheduling and the administrator in charge of the pupil resource committee. Essentially, I was in charge of discipline and finding alternative placements for students who were not successful in a comprehensive high school environment. I did this for three years, and during that time, twelve students that attended Westside were murdered, not inside the school, but in various situations outside of school, all of which were gang related.
During the course of the school year 2006 to 2007, three seniors were murdered. Three sets of diplomas were given to parents during graduation: Joel Ferguson, Marquise Shoulders, and Dwayne Heard. Worst of all, they legitimately met their graduation requirements. All of this took place after the infamous Newark School Yard Slayings in August of 2007 where Dashon Harvey, Iofemi Hightower, and Terrence Aeriel were murdered in the playground behind Mt. Vernon Elementary School. Two of the victims were former students of West Side High School: Iofemi Hightower and Terrence Aeriel also known as T. J. One of the assailants, Melvin Jovel, was also a former Westside student who attended with T. J. I vividly remember both students. T. J. was fun and outgoing; Melvin was quiet and reserved. Gang influence was huge and gave the school a unique and dangerous feel. The atmosphere was a bit morbid, but the students were resilient; they had a certain grit about them. Curriculum and education was a far second to safety. Apathy among teachers was prevalent. Doors unfortunately had to be chained to prevent unwanted and unsavory individuals from entering the building. Bathrooms were combat zones. Despite these obstacles, I believe we were successful in maintaining a certain level of consistency within the building. Shootings around the building were common. Metal detectors were an essential deterrent, but not sure how reliable they were since students moved in and out of the building freely after school.
I remember having a long conversation with Marquise Shoulders’s father in the spring of 2007. He was concerned with his son’s progress and was seeking advice. It wasn’t a very long conversation, but I told him that his son was a respectable kid, and sometimes, just giving him some space would be good. All that Marquise needed was some words of encouragement just let him know that you care. I don’t know if he ever did that, but that interaction would haunt me for years. Marquise was murdered a few weeks later. Not sure if they ever found the killers.
A few months later, I had a meeting with Dwayne, his father, and grandfather. Three generations in my office. Dwayne was removed from school and placed in an alternative setting for fighting. He was a Crip and proud of it. Most of his fights were gang related. He could not let anyone disrespect his set. A “set” was like a chapter in a fraternity, a lower segment, a piece of a puzzle; for example, the Hoover Street set of the Crips is a smaller section of a larger gang. He, in many ways, was rebelling against his father who was a Blood. Usually, a boy rebels against his dad who attended Harvard by going to Princeton; this situation was the other end of the extreme. Dwayne was very respectful to adults and was actually a pretty pleasant young man. He had a grade point average of over a 3.0. He wanted to go to college. Dwayne fulfilled all has obligations at the alternative program and was on his way back to West Side High School. We all talked together for about an hour discussing future goals and aspirations. We were all in agreement that graduating and attending college was the objective for Dwayne. He registered and was ready to come back to West Side High School. We shook hands and they left; an hour later, Dwayne was shot in the head by a fellow gang member over a disagreement about money. This event devastated me; I had a good relationship with Dwayne and to see how someone with aspirations can be gone in an instant was heartbreaking. I have lost students to violence before, but this was different and disturbing in so many ways. I guess the timing and the fact that it was a new beginning for Dwayne is what bothered me the most. I lost a few nights of sleep because of this, and it still bothers me till this day.
Gangs are bad, drugs are bad, poverty is bad, police are good, laws are good, school is good, and religion is good. You see, as humans, it is easier to categorize things by making things black or white; either you are with me or against me is simple. When we see things in black or white, it is easy and naturally something we strive for. The problem becomes when we apply shades of grey. Dwayne lived a certain lifestyle, and it is easy to dismiss the event of his death as his choice to live that lifestyle and no longer think about it. I believe the pain we all feel when we lose a loved one is the same. I can only imagine the pain a parent feels when they lose a child; it must be unbearable.
My experience with gangs in the inner city is something of a paradox. Many of the young men involved are victims of circumstance. Broken family structures and poverty are key causes, but that oversimplifies a very complex issue. Many parents that were gang members themselves broke the mold of typical gang members. They were concerned, respectful, and seemed to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. These are individuals who have experienced a great deal in a short amount of time. Whether it is an older brother and uncle or parent, their views drastically vary but seem to make sense. Many of them want more for their younger brothers, nephews, sons, or daughters and their views and perspectives of providing more evolved, but there was one common denominator. There was a clear understanding that regardless of path chosen education is clearly the only way out. Many older gangsters teach their younger members how to balance the street code with school code. They each have one foot in and out of the lifestyle. Do not stand to be disrespected, but do not ruin your chances of going further. You have street justice and the law; learn how to use both. Through these conflicting philosophies, I learned how to use the gang’s influence to make the school a safer place. I learn how to leverage the key players, shot callers those individuals that carried the most weight. Identifying the “OGs” in the school and asking for their cooperation in the school paid huge dividends. They seem to appreciate the recognition and actively engaged in preventative measures like conflict resolution and counseling younger students. Their methods may have been different, but the concept was the same. At the end of the day, the pain we feel, the love we feel is the same. We all want what is best for our children, regardless of demographic background.
“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against.”