Patterson teens feel unsafe at school

PATTERSON -- Teenagers here don't feel very safe in their own schools. They fear a growing gang presence, yet at the same time they harbor a mistrust of law enforcement.

Many of their parents are gone long hours commuting, leaving them with too much free time on their hands. And while the majority would like to work, they say there are few jobs for teenagers, or anything much else to do.

Those are among the results of a survey of Patterson Unified School District students con- ducted on behalf of the Westside Community Alliance, a grass- roots advocacy group that provides outreach and social services. The organization is using the information to sharpen its mission, focusing more on youth and family issues.

Though the results were released last week, the survey was conducted more than four months before the Sept. 19 brawl at Patterson High School that prompted a lockdown of the campus. Ten students have been suspended.

Some of the survey results are startling, such as the 16 percent of students who said they had brought a weapon to school. Only 10 percent of students said they felt "very safe" in their own schools. That's compared to about 15 percent statewide, said Dr. Jamie McCreary, a retired California State University, Stanislaus, professor who compiled the Patterson report.

Dejeune Shelton, president of the alliance and a Patterson City Council member, said the survey paints a fairly accurate "big picture" of the transitions she sees happening in the Patterson area as it adjusts to the influx of Bay Area residents.

"A lot of people moved here because they like the small-town feel and they could afford houses. Many still commute to their jobs, leaving at 5 a.m. and they don't come back until 6, 7 or 8 o'clock at night. It is leaving a whole community vacant and it is also leaving students alone," Shelton said.

The survey is part of a research report that gives a "snapshot of opinions and feelings of teens" in Patterson, McCreary said.

Teens feel most safe at home

Sponsored by the Modesto-based Center for Human Services, the report included focus groups, surveys and other data, McCreary said. The survey included 235 teenagers between the ages of 15 to 17 who live in Patterson, Grayson and Westley.

Gangs and violence rank as serious concerns. Nearly 50 percent of teens said they are worried about gang activity and 15 percent said they have been victims or witnessed a crime in the past year.

Shelton said she was surprised to see where teenagers feel safe from gangs -- home was the No. 1 answer, followed by fast food restaurants. School was much further down the list, below public parks, friends' homes and "nowhere is safe."

"It is clear from the responses that were given that many community areas do not feel safe to youth. Even the school environment is not experienced as a safe haven by youth," the report said.

Fast food restaurants in Patterson are flooded with teenagers after school. Pizza Plus downtown is among the most popular, with nearly 150 students who regu- larly fill up the booths within an hour after school, owner Dave Damas said.

While most students eating at the pizza parlor Wednesday said they aren't too afraid of gang activity at school, they admit that it is more comfortable for them to hang out in fast food restaurants.

"You know who is going to be here," said Stephanie Corral, 17.

Westley Borba, 15, said that playing football at Patterson High keeps him occupied, but he's noticed an increase in gang activity on the 1,600-student campus.

"There's been more fights and more crime and graffiti," he said.

There are 13 documented gangs with about 250 members, according to the Sheriff's Department.

Law enforcement representatives and school board officials are concerned about the report's implications. Security has been stepped up at the high school in response to the series of fights that broke out.

"There shouldn't be any student afraid to go to school," said Sheriff Adam Christianson. "School should be a safe environment and the school district tries to provide that the best they can, but gang elements are very difficult, as you can see from the last couple of weeks."

School board President Bruce Kelly said Patterson "isn't more or less safe than any other school," noting that the vast majority of the students at Patterson High were not involved in the fights.

"The campuses are safe. There are issues as towns grow up, and we've been talking about gang problems long before the fights came around," Kelly said.

Many of the teens and preteens interviewed this week complained of a lack of after-school activities in Patterson. Several offered suggestions for things that would keep them busy -- a bowling alley, movie theater, miniature golf or an arcade.

"We just need something. We just walk around doing nothing because there is nothing to do," said Sarah Carranca, a student at Creekside Middle School in Patterson.

Carranca and three of her friends -- all 12-year-olds -- said they know which areas of town to avoid and stick to places such as the pizza parlor because it "feels safer."

Law enforcement not trusted

Damas, who has owned Pizza Plus for 13 years, welcomes the students and keeps his prices low so they can afford lunch. Sometimes, they can be a "little mischievous," but he's never had major problems.

He found it interesting that some students would find his business safer than school.

"It should be the opposite, one would think. Schools are designed to protect kids," Damas said.

Shelton said she believes students might feel safer in fast food restaurants because they know they are in a controlled environment, where managers don't tolerate trouble-makers.

Despite concerns about gangs and crime, nearly 60 percent of the teens surveyed said they do not believe sheriff's deputies are there to help them. "Relationships between law enforcement and the community are strained," the report said.

That became evident during the summer when accusations arose that deputies harassed teens, stopping them without reason or questioning their activities. Several people complained to the Patterson City Council, and a forum was organized Sept. 13 that drew about 50 people.

The emotionally charged meeting included parents and students who related stories about their experiences with law enforcement. Sheriff's Department representatives responded that they have a duty to make routine stops of teenagers to keep the community safe, as well as to deter gang activity by having a high visibility.

Shelton said some of the mistrust might be a result of teenagers only talking among themselves about problems in their community. In general, parents "do not serve as support figures" for youths as often as they could, the report said.

"They're not talking to adults or church leaders; they are bouncing ideas off each other. That's a major issue and can only lead to misinformation," Shelton said.

Often, parents don't get home until late at night after commuting from work. About three-quarters of youths live with a parent who commutes, leaving teens "alone and unsupervised" for several hours each day, the survey said.

Shelton said her organization is encouraging businesses to hire more teenagers. The group also is looking at ways to begin apprenticeships for students at the Kohl's and Longs Drug Stores distribution warehouses in Patterson.

The survey results aren't all discouraging.

They also show a highly tolerant and diverse community that is welcoming to newcomers.

The vast majority of youths, 78 percent, enjoy living among people from different ethnic backgrounds and 79 percent said they do not avoid newcomers at school.

"Patterson is really friendly and open to people coming here. Children coming here are the same way," Shelton said.

Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at csalerno@modbee.com or 238-4574.