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Students learn to live with violence

Schools, city counter shootings with security rules, support programs

Fifteen-year-old Burnetta Rush is determined to get through it all.

One of eight children raised in her parents' home on North Borthwick Avenue, the Jefferson High School freshman says she has vivid memories from her childhood of people getting shot outside her home over gangs, drugs and personal feuds.

The violence in many parts of North and Northeast Portland has slowed in recent years, but it hasn't stopped. Last Wednesday, a 16-year-old former Jefferson student was shot three blocks from the school while he sat in his car at a stop sign on North Haight Avenue and Killingsworth Street. A crowd of about 50 students returning from lunch saw the incident; police are investigating. The boy underwent surgery at a local hospital, but his injuries were not life-threatening.

'Randomly, every once in a while, it happens,' Rush said matter-of-factly. 'But I try and be an A student and work really hard. My mom says, 'Keep your head on your shoulders.' '

The incident was a stark reminder that, while most agree that Jefferson doesn't deserve the rough reputation it has in the city, its location in North Portland puts it at the center of the storm.

Within blocks of the school are hundreds of other students who attend Portland Community College's Cascade Campus and the Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center, an alternative school. Near the school are Peninsula Park and Unthank Park, two parks that are notorious for being gang member hangouts.

'The Jeff kids are not bad, they're well-behaved,' said Pete Brickett, owner of Vinnie's Pizza, three blocks from the high school at 300 N. Killingsworth St., next to where Wednesday's shooting took place. 'Usually if we have problems, it's other kids that are supposed to be in school or older guys who come to hit on the Jeff girls.'

Jefferson Vice Principal Karl Logan and the school resource officers said that other than the recent shooting, school violence has been mostly absent lately. The last spike in gang activity occurred last October, when a student pulled a gun and fired three rounds at a former student at the corner of North Emerson Street and Commercial Avenue. No one was injured, but that incident capped several weeks in which teachers saw increases in gang signs and graffiti in the hallways.

Jefferson is by no means alone; educators at Franklin, Marshall, Madison, Roosevelt and Parkrose high schools are reporting similar problems.

School staff ask for tips

Administrators at each of those schools said that sometimes their knowledge of current gang trends is so poor that they can't tell the difference between gang signs and current clothing fads.

Several representatives at Mayor Vera Katz's twice-monthly antigang meeting on Friday urged Portland Public Schools Superintendent Jim Scherzinger to create some type of districtwide curriculum for teachers and administrators to educate them on such issues.

They suggested other proactive ideas as well. Katherine Anderson, a city crime prevention specialist, favors closing high school campuses during lunch hour, a practice that has worked to curb delinquent activity at Marshall High School in Southeast Portland since 1992. Katz said she strongly supported the idea, and Scherzinger said he would take it under consideration.

Although a Multnomah County study shows that juvenile crime dropped 5 percent last year, many observers said it appears that younger juveniles are increasingly the suspects or victims of gang-related crimes.

They said that while former gang members Ñ now in their 20s Ñ have settled down or been sent to prison, their younger siblings, as young as 13, are emulating gangster activity or becoming involved in criminal activity.

John Canda, executive director of the Northeast Neighborhood Coalition, said he thought that some of the gang activity among younger teens can be attributed to a lack of supervision, proactive outreach and education in the wake of systemwide budget cuts in recent years.

'We haven't been able to do as much as we've done in the past,' he said. 'A lot of those messages haven't gotten to those kids as we concentrated on the older guys.'

Canda said that he's working to organize a series of 'offender meetings' for felons about to be released into the community who are thought likely to re-offend.

'We want to give these individuals two messages,' Canda said. 'One is that if you continue to engage in criminal activities, our federal partners will prosecute you, and you'll go away somewhere else for a very long time. If you choose the alternative route, we want to find jobs for you, get you involved in counseling and help you become healthy.'

Jefferson takes steps

In recent months, Jefferson school administrators have been taking steps to increase security as spring and summer months approach.

They've limited the number of entrances from eight to one, Jefferson's Logan said. The change makes it easier to manage the comings and goings of students and nonstudents, he said.

When shootings happen on or around campus, the school goes into lockdown mode, meaning no one is allowed to leave or enter the school building until the campus is deemed safe. Portland police maintain a presence outside, and teachers and counselors are briefed on the situation in case anyone needs support.

Shootings in the community 'definitely affect students,' Logan said. 'Sadly, it's pretty normal. I think plenty of the kids are used to it.'

The school is also in the process of developing a mentor program that may be in place as soon as next school year, Logan said. Modeled on a similar program in Atlanta, it would rely completely on community members and partner one adult with every four students.

Ideally, every student would participate, he said.

Two months ago, school resource officer Derek Rodrigues helped begin a 'men's group' of students who are on the verge of dropping out or flunking. The current group of seven students meets for an hour every other Thursday to discuss communication and consequences for their behavior. Logan said it is a proactive effort that he hopes will pay off.

In the meantime, Jefferson student Rush, who wants to go to college and become an interior decorator, said she wouldn't want to be anywhere else right now, despite the issues in her community.

'Everyone was telling me, 'Don't go to Jeff; it's a bad school,' ' she said, smiling brightly. 'But once you live in this neighborhood, it wouldn't feel right not to go to your school.'