Tuesday, May 28, 2013

An Eccletic Set Of Students Help To Keep Peace at San Pedro High

Let Up students meet on campus each Friday to go over what's ailing the school and how it can be fixed. It's leader, Tank, is on the left.
Perry Clark was shot to death when his sister, right, Shaniece was 4.

An Innovative Program to Tone Down Racial Tensions After Off Campus Shootings of San Pedro High Students Seemed Doomed, But That Changed Because of One Man

By Diana L. Chapman

Even though it was doomed, and likely to die a quick death, it survived. It survived year after year and without it, San Pedro High Student Danielle "Ella" Johnson vows she might not have known what to do when she walked in the girl's bathroom at school and saw blood flowing out from a stall.

"Shocked" and "confused," she tried not to panic. The person in the stall was quiet. There was no noise, no motion. Just blood. Another girl came in, spotted the blood and fled. Ella, however, ran to find any adult, grabbing the school nurse.

Together they discovered a grisly mess; a girl had been mutilating herself with a razor. It was more painful when the stall door swung open and Ella discovered a new shock; it was one of her friends. 

Paramedics were called, the girl was saved and Ella was called "a hero," a title she refuses to accept. She summoned her courage, she said, only because she was a member of Let Up, the name for a group of  young leaders who come from all walks of life at the Harbor Area school. The group is charged with keeping the school "healthy," steering it away from racial tensions and other malevolent issues, such as drugs and bullying, that can rot and molder the underbelly of any school.

"I thought about my club, Leaders Empowering Teens United for Peace, or "Let Up" and how stepping in when others walk away helps me build an impactful message in my community," she wrote in an essay as to why she took action. "My involvement with this club has been about learning ways to tackle violence and bullying plus spreading that message in school and the surrounding community." 

But for a time this program was threatened with extinction  --  despite its success in bringing the school together after racial tensions exploded between African-American and Hispanics when student Perry Clark was shot and killed on Feb. 2 2000 and others were shot over the next decade, innocent victims of apparent gang-tensions off campus. One man, who goes only by the name Tank, salvaged the program -- despite his lack of academic credentials.

But it was a highly trained academic at the school, Windy Warren, who was a crises counselor at the campus, who formed Let Up, resulting directly from Perry's killing. She hoped it would halt simmering tensions and stop the fights; it did so with great success. In fact, the results were so astonishing, the program did not disband and would see the campus through more turbulent waters to come. But once Warren was promoted to assistant principal at Phineas Banning High School in Wilmington in 2006, her departure from the campus was imminent. Perry's mother feared the worst: the collapse of a leadership group of students who tamped down horrendous racial tensions after her son was shot five times. 

"The kids were hostile. They fought before school. They fought after school. They fought at school. No one was safe at that point," Kandie explained. "They waged war. I wanted everything to calm down. I didn't want any other parents to go through what we went through."

Her son, Perry, 16 at the time, was  an African-American student at the school who was out with two other friends playing basketball on Feb. 2, 2000. They were on their way home about 8:30 at night when Hispanic gang members began shooting at them in an alley near Santa Cruz and Center streets, his mother said. Perry began to run, but when his friend fell, he turned back to help him up. That move cost him his life. Perry was shot several times, including in the back and in the head. His two friends also were shot, but survived. None of them were affiliated to gangs.

Sadly, Perry was less than  a block away from his home. 

With Windy Warren leaving, Perry's mother -- her whole family in fact who continued to support Let Up through the years  -- didn't want the program to end because they saw firsthand how it interceded to save other kids lives and tamped down on racial tensions. But there was, in fact, no academic to take on the role. Who could possibly take it over?

 It seemed like out of the blue, a loan cowboy arrived at San Pedro High. He wasn't a principal, a teacher, or any kind of an administrator. He wasn't an educator of any kind. He had no academic qualifications. He is  known to students and friends as "Mr. Tank" or simply Tank.

In fact, Tank was a hardworking man who sold auto parts for 30 years. When he left that industry, he volunteered to do surveillance for the Los Angeles Police Department across from the school. He also aided with the LAPD's boot camp for troubled teens even when he was the "hated disciplinarian." What made him the savior of Let Up was a blend of things: timing, his interest in helping students and a former senior lead officer turned Los Angeles Councilman suggesting he take it over.

To Perry's mother, Kandie Thomas Clark, having someone takeover was imperative -- even though she's moved away and lives now in Fresno.

She is grateful, she said, that Tank came forward. And so is Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who once was the Los Angeles police department's senior lead officer in the area at the time.

 "I had an opportunity to meet Tank for the first time while he was volunteering  with the LAPD, where he showed commitment and passion to serve our community," said Harbor Area councilman Joe Buscaino. "When there was a leadership opportunity in the Let Up program at San Pedro High, I knew (Tank) was the person to fill it. He works well with kids. He has a commitment and the drive to ensure kids are on the right track and it is no surprise that he is successful in his role.

"I am very happy that he chose to accept the responsibility."

Perry's mother called Tank "successful" as have others.

But for Tank, this was no easy job.

First, there was the issue of could he step into Warren's academically giant boots -- her skills steeped in long educational tradition and administration (she holds a doctorate in psychology) and in particular dealing with crises situations -- such as negotiating with retaliatory, on-the-edge gang members. Could Tank possibly keep the students on track when they gathered together as a team and as leaders to keep peace among the rest of the student populous when horrible things happened?

Could he stay in the saddle?  His Let Up students say he has.

And he wasn't a complete stranger. When Tank met the former crises counselor, Windy Warren, at a safety collaborative meeting, she recruited him to come visit her Let Up students at San Pedro High. Warren worked off the premise that depending on a bunch of adults sweeping in was unlikely to settle heated, and emotional issues amongst teens. She believed it would take the kids to resolve problems and she didn't pick your average student leaders. Instead, in a racially mixed group,  the former counselor turned principal picked anything from on-the-edge students to football players and mixed them together.

 It wasn't your typical leaders at a high school  -- and that made Tank, now 60, interested.

He went to meet the students.

"The first thing they told me was: 'You can listen to us, but you have to put your  camera away," Tank told me over coffee at the Omelette and Waffle Shop before going to work at the school. "In six months, they made me an honorary member."

Later, students came to believe he was an integral part of Let Up even when he took a paid job on campus to supervise and discipline students on the yard. His personality, current Let Up students say, is rather like "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." On the yard, he was busting students for drugs, climbing fences, causing fights and scores of other bad choices students make on a daily basis.

But in Let Up, he was a John Wayne kind of Teddy Bear, doing what he believed was right and allowing the students on the team to become close, share their painful stories and grow. They knew that he cared and would help them through any difficulties that might arise. What he expected in return, students said, was for his members to look out after the school community. The program is "mostly about helping other people," said one of Let Up's leaders, Ernesto Hernandez, a 15-year-old sophomore, a clean-cut, square shouldered kid who seems genuine about his concern for other teens.

It's not always a popular choice, Ernesto explains, but it's so worth it if he can save one student or one friend from spiraling down into an abyss. He's worked hard to prevent a friend from doing drugs and allowing herself to get lost in the sometimes human misery of being a high school student facing a list of bad choices. It has been a hard path to pick, he agrees, "but I feel right" about it. What she decides, the jury is still out.

The members are often accused of being "snitches," but they said they had to draw the line of what's right and what's wrong -- and realized the value of the program had given them a sense of pride and made them stronger and more rounded.
Let Up students help out a performance at Dana Middle School. Tank is to the right.
"It builds character," said another leader, Timothy DeBoer, 15, who sports long hair and has a surfer look. "It's not like we are running to people to see if we can help them. But if we can, we help. It's telling people that there's always someone who has their back. There are people who you can share with and it's a safe haven."

Tank's largest endorsement that Let Up is working is the fact that school doesn't start until about 9 a.m. on Fridays. In order to continue his work due to schedule changes, he holds his Let Up meetings every Friday morning at 8 a.m. rather than during school hours. That means he has to drag a pack of teens out of bed who'd much rather been sleeping in.

But he does it. One Friday morning, about 25 students showed up. I stopped by for a visit and couldn't believe the camaraderie, the cooperation and the respect the students had for each other and for Tank and other staff who support the program.

The Let Up students are also proud they had a fundraiser to donate $110 to the Beacon House and $100 to Toberman Neighborhood Center, both non-profits dealing with the ailments of poverty and substance abuse.

"We look forward to donating a whole lot more next year," Ernesto said.

Possibly one reason for his success, Tank explained, is that he took the time to understand his Let Up students complex lives and understood that many faced tough issues.

"Some have been displaced or have discipline issues at home," Tank said. "Here, they talk to other kids. I tell them Let Up is the place to escape. I look at them to settle conflicts. If they know someone who is missing school to get involved."

It hasn't always been a blessed trail for Tank or his Let UP students.

In 2007 on Halloween, one of the school's most popular football and basketball players was shot to death at a party protecting his friends. 
Letarian "L.T." Tasby was shot to death.

Laterian "L.T." Tasby, an African American, had recently moved to San Pedro and had turned his life around. He stayed away from gangs and became a star not only at the high school, but at the Boys and Girls Club on Cabrillo Avenue. He was widely admired and respected for his transformation and students looked up to him.

Friends said when Hispanic youths showed up at a Halloween party and provoked a brawl, Tasby, 17, "fought like a soldier" to protect his friends before he was fatally shot in the chest.

Laterian "was liked by everybody," Tank said. "When he got shot, everyone blamed everyone else. The Hispanics thought African Americans shot him." And vice versa.

His team immediately had to come up with a plan. For Tank, it was like "losing one of my own." His group was devastated -- but they pulled it together. They had to ease the brewing anger that seethed at the school over a senseless killing of a boy who meant so much to the community.

Let Up helped school administrators -- who were in a tangle of emotions themselves over L.T.'s death -- make L.T. T-shirts. Students were allowed to wander the campus and the team members went out and talked to kids.

The crime was never solved and still resonates at the school today.

While Tank may be a tough man out on the yard and disliked by his disciplinarian actions, students in his Let Up group say they trust him completely. For some of them, he's the only father figure they've ever had.

Ana Ahmad, 19, a freshman now at San Jose State University, still returns to Let Up when she comes home. She considers it her second family.

"I came to my first meeting and it was life changing," Ana said. "I saw how close the kids were so I just kept coming. It's a safe zone for everyone who comes into the group. I heard some crazy stories. Some kids had no family."

Every student I interviewed only could rave about Tank's abilities to keep them going, make them feel safe and empower them to help other students at school. 

But had he impressed the originator of the program, Windy Warren? At Banning, Windy was able to start another Let Up program that also was successful. Initially, she had wanted to develop such teams across LAUSD, but all that turned into an impossibility when she became principal at Carson High School.

She was just too busy with triple the amount of work to start the program at Carson. As far as Tank goes, not only did he stay in the saddle, she said, he broadened the program at San Pedro High and "took ownership of it," she said during a brief phone call.

"I am so impressed he's doing Let Up. I can't even tell you. I'm thrilled about it. I'm really pleased and I'm honored," the Carson principal said.

As I left the program that day, I could only feel one thing, that every school needed Let Up to quell fights, reduce tensions, prevent bullying and provide a "therapy" for the school and the students in the program.

But it takes people like Tank to do it. 

At times, Tank says, he can't believe it himself that he "took over a group run by a doctor of education." It's a different world now, because when Warren put the group together it was "to keep peace on the campus." As tensions have faded, the team pulls together to stop potential fights, aid students who need to get off drugs or aid in helping kids who are bullied.

Now, the group is more about making an effort to surge out on the campus and help students that need them. Like the girl in the bathroom, who could have died if Ella hadn't snatched up an adult.

"As a group, we try to do the right thing," Tank said.

Students say it's an honor to work with the parts salesman who made more than a major commitment to help them. On a recent day when Tank was leaving the campus to go home, a random student said: "Hey, Mr. Tank. Have a nice evening. Thanks for keeping us safe." After having had a trying day, that comment made Tank want to come back the next day and do it all over again.

And the one thing the Let Up kids know: he'll be riding back to the campus in the fall to help them all over again.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Once Homeless, A San Pedro High Student Snares Full Posse Scholarship

Ella Johnson at the Boys and Girls Club,

A Once Homeless "Anti-Social" Student Finds Her Way at the Boys and Girls Club And Receives Coveted Posse Scholarship; It's a First for San Pedro High

By Diana L. Chapman

Sitting in the dark, Danielle "Ella" Johnson stared at the dirty cot her 3-month old nephew was in. A cold loneliness paralyzed her heart. Nothing seemed right, just bitter.

For the first time in her life, she, her two sisters and her mom were now shut in a Skid Row Shelter in Los Angeles after being evicted from their Watts apartment when her mom could no longer pay the bills. They shared one blanket among all of them that cold night. It was dark and ugly and the way Ella started her first day in 7th grade at Culver City Middle School.

"It was so uncomfortable, I can't even describe it," said the 17-year-old who wanders back to that horrible first night. "It was sad. It's something that will never escape my mind. In the cafeteria, people were standing in long lines to eat.

"I felt like a helpless newborn, vulnerable and exposed," she would later write in an essay.

But after suffering a long, and turbulent road of financial burdens and homelessness in her family, a light began to shine on this troubled youth. With help from the Boys and Girls Club and other programs, she transformed from an angry girl with "an anti-social attitude" to become a remarkable leader at San Pedro High School and at the Los Angeles Harbor area club. She changed so dramatically that this year she was awarded a full tuition scholarship to private Bucknell University through the Posse Foundation worth nearly $47,000 a year.

In addition, Ella will also be among the 320 seniors graduating Wednesday evening from the popular and successful Boys and Girls Club College Bound program that launched eleven years ago. Many of those youths would not have gone onto higher education without it. And there have been hundreds that had gone before them.

For many, including Ella, no crystal ball was showing a way out of their often impoverished circumstances.

 Instead of focusing on her future for the next two years, Ella just worried about the other kids teasing her for wearing hand-me-downs at Culver City Middle School. 

When her mom at last found housing in San Pedro just before Ella was to enter high school, Ella rebelled. She wanted to stay with her friends and continue schooling in Culver City where she could visit her 4th grade teacher who allowed her to visit every day after school.

This meant each day, her mom had to drive her in a "crappy car that I had to push  just to get it to start," Ella said. Once the car broke down, her mom insisted she go to San Pedro High -- and join the Boys and Girls Club where she sat angrily day-after-day, wearing headphones and refusing to talk with anyone.

 "I hated it," she said. "I'd come in and stay in my own little bubble. I was in a new environment and I was reluctant to be involved in anything."

"Ella use to come in, put her headphones on and she didn't talk to anybody," said Maria Flores, the club's College Bound coordinator. "But she saw how the seniors were going on "to school to better their lives and "we had a better understanding of her...she is her mom's right hand."

By all accounts, officials involved with Ella are more than surprised by her keenly intuitive and astute leadership abilities that recently led her to save a girl from continuing to mutilate herself when Ella spotted blood streaming from bathroom at San Pedro High.

"Ella truly is the whole package," said Yesenia Aguilar, who oversees the College Bound program at all of the Los Angeles Harbor area Boys and Girls club sites. "She's a leader involved with our club and community in all areas, academics. Athletics. Service. You name it. She did it with grace, manners and a passion that I have not seen for awhile."

San Pedro High College Counselor Valerie Armstrong said she's thrilled that Ella received the award adding she's the first at San Pedro High to get the scholarship. In fact, one of Ella's close Boys and Girls club friends, Edwin Torres, was nominated for the same scholarship last year, Armstrong said, making it to the last round. He was not picked, but he received a full scholarship from St. John's University in Minnesota. 

Besides the Boys and Girl's staff, Ella attributes her dramatic change to two seniors she met at the club -- Torres, and Tabitha Sanchez, who is now attending California State University, Northridge.

They both encouraged her that she could overcome her issues and had the whole world head of her. Reached by phone, Torres said he wanted "to break the cycle" that San Pedro High students would be nominated for Posse, but not get selected. He spent time coaching Ella, sharing all that he learned, what interviews were like, what types of questions were asked, how she should fashion her story, how she should dress. He believed in her, he said.

"I tried to push her to break free of the picture of her family" troubles and "I have endless Facebook messages back to back trying to coach" and answer her questions to help her receive the scholarship, he said.

"She was so happy and so thankful for that," Torres explained, but "I always knew she was meant for greatness."

 "I believe Ella got the scholarship because she has amazing leadership qualities," the high school college counselor said. "She is a peer tutor, helping underclassmen with English and math homework. She is also a staff intern at the Boys and Girls Club assisting with activities and their tutoring program. She was recognized by the Los Angeles City Council for her work in the Let Up organization, where she mentors younger girls about making wise choices in school and in their personal lives.

"Ella is a well rounded young lady who thrives on being involved on her campus and has a wonderful rapport with both students and adults."

All of those golden opportunities, Ella explains, stem from those who surrounded, persuaded and supported her. After tutoring younger students, Ella said she found her vocation; She wants to be a teacher.

As far as resolving her anger, friend Tabitha Sanchez helped sooth those issues telling her to look forward and not back. Tabitha herself dealt with anger issues coming from "a dysfunctional family."

"Ella and I expressed ourselves through stepping (a dance form) which allowed us to release some of our anger that had been bottled up and other times we had girl talk," Tabitha texted. "The beginning (for her) was to have humbled hopes for her future, a need to experience something more than disorder and a heart that wouldn't allow her to give up."

But her departure will not be easy. Ella worries about leaving her mom, Talitha Johnson behind, especially since her mother had to take in her son's four children ages 1, 3, 4 and 7 and give up her bed.

"It's hard because there is no one else to help her," Ella said. "But she wants me to have a balanced life."

Talitha Johnson says she's proud of her daughter's accomplishments and that Ella is her first child out of six to leave and go out of state for her education. All of her older kids (Ella is number five in the lineup) have gone on and received college degrees locally, said the single mother, but were too young to help when the remaining family became homeless.

In her lifetime, Talitha said she never thought her family would be exposed to homelessness. It was a humiliating experience and when they were forced to live in a motel, they couldn't eat in the room because it was filled with rats and roaches. Now, they can move on.

"I am ecstatic and I am very proud," Talitha said during a phone interview. "I was grateful after all we went through and she turned it around. She was very depressed when we were first came to San Pedro. I told her no matter what struggles you have, you can make it if you keep going."

Financially, Ella's tuition will be paid all four years, but she will have to cover her own room and board, said Aguilar, the club's College Bound Director. Ella will continue seeking scholarships to help her with that, Aguilar added.

Garnering the Posse Foundation scholarship was a huge honor and only came to Ella because of her leadership roles. The foundation searches for youths from  public schools in "disadvantaged urban backgrounds with leadership qualities" who would often be overlooked by some colleges, according to its website.

In  August, the San Pedro High student will begin her first stint at Bucknell, but she won't go it alone at the Pennsylvania school, a private university in the small town of Lewisburg which is tucked along the West Branch Susquehanna River. It's a community that stared at the tall African-American girl when she went on a visit -- a big reason the foundation seeks out multi-cultural diversity in training future leaders.

The Posse foundation selects about nine candidates to head together to each of its 40 plus participating campuses including high end universities such as Boston College to Pepperdine University in Los Angeles. The students are expected to work as a team successfully to finish college and to "transform the landscape of leadership."

When Ella received the phone call from Posse in December, "I was beyond excited," she said. "I ran into my mom's room and she was clapping. I am going to strive to do my best for the next four years. And I'm going to give back to my community. I'm going to give back to the club."

For many here who worked with Ella, they don't doubt that promise for a moment.