Rich Thug, Poor Thug

How gangs overran a school in an affluent neighborhood. And how administrators reclaimed it.

DiBernardo agrees. "Before those kids used to be in and out of the school all day, spending hours at the mall and wherever. There was a tremendous amount of truancy. Truancy leads to bad performance in school and that leads to delinquency and gang trouble." (To offset the inconvenience to students who wanted to go out to lunch, Miller allowed McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Subway to open restaurants on campus.)

A student court now adjudicates some accusations of bad conduct, such as class-cutting, and disrespect to staff. Students who have repeated discipline problems are transferred to an off-campus program until their behavior improves.

Miller also outlawed gang uniforms and hand signals in the school. "We couldn't take the kids out of the gangs all at once, but we could take the gangs out of the school," says Zaragoza. "To tell you the truth, I think the gang members were glad. Without any of that stuff going on here, this was one place where they wouldn't have to guard their backs."

But Miller went further. He instructed his staff of 300 full-time employees to identify all problem students. That strategy continues today. "I tell a kid to come see me and we'll talk," says Zaragoza. "If he doesn't come, then he can't stay in the school. I tell them I understand where they're coming from, but I don't condone it. I tell them they have to change, and we start working on them, assistant principals, teachers, too. We push the students to get involved in school activities and start luring them away from the gang. And we don't let up."

Zepeda, Juancito, and Jesus were repeatedly dragged into Zaragoza's office. "I talked to them and talked to them, trying to show them how they were wasting their lives." Still, the gang members have doubts about leaving that life behind. "Jesus, you see how big he is. One day he sat in this office and cried his eyes out. He was scared to leave the gang, the protection he thought it offered him. And he told me how alone he felt out on the street."

Zaragoza describes a moment when he thought he had Zepeda won over, only to see him backslide. "It's hard because you can't control what they do off campus," Zaragoza laments.

"I had this way of being, of thinking ... and I didn't want to give it up," Zepeda concedes. But the Braddock staff kept after him, stopping him in the halls, always watching and talking to him. "They wouldn't leave me alone," Zepeda exclaims. They eventually cajoled him into the football team and then into the debating club. His grades improved. Last summer, when Miami-Dade Community College President Eduardo Padron read about Zepeda in an El Nuevo Herald article, he offered him a scholarship. Zepeda will enroll there next fall.

Educators do not work alone. School and police officials now regularly share information. "If we hear there might be trouble off campus, we tell the police and they track the situation," says Zaragoza. "If the police hear of trouble on the street that could affect us, they call and we start getting between the ones we have to get between. Sometimes the kids even come to me and say, 'Tell these guys to back off or there will be trouble.'"

Miller says the school still experiences crises, especially when gangs have been fighting off campus: "If we've heard of a problem over the weekend, then on Monday morning we're on high alert. Several times during the year, the entire staff will be on that kind of alert."

The Miami-Dade police gang detail has cracked down on young criminals in the Braddock area. "We had three gangs that formed a union in order to do business, part of which was out there near Braddock," says Sgt. Carlos Vazquez. "The Imperial Gangsters, the Take No Shit gang and the Latin Syndicate formed a new group they called the Savage City Gangsters. We put a lot of their leaders in jail and that brought down the violence out there on the western side of the county." Vazquez won't name specific leaders. Police are still collecting evidence against them.

The cooperation between Braddock and the police has paid off. Zaragoza says only about twenty members of three gangs are operating at Braddock. "There may be another twenty who are wannabes," says DiBernardo.

"With their leaders in jail, that has made the gangs less organized," says Zaragoza. "Some other leaders got into crack and their organizations fell apart. At least for the moment, they aren't what they were. It isn't like the inner city where there is a tradition of gangs, where the gang really belongs to the neighborhood," says Zaragoza. "Here it has been easier to rip the kids out of gang life."

Braddock students confirm that the presence of gangs at their school has diminished.

"You don't see gang stuff on campus," says Jonathan Mosso, a fifteen-year-old freshman. He used to live in Hialeah and hung out with gang members there. "I moved with my mom out here last year. Nobody has come to me with that stuff. Back in Hialeah they would come looking for me and it would be hard to get out of it."

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